What makes ReFresh Milwaukee unique, and the recommendations quite poignant, is the fact that residents set the direction of this planning effort. — Mayor Tom Barrett
ReFresh Milwaukee is the official Sustainability Plan for the City of Milwaukee. It provides a vision for community sustainability over the next 10 years as it seeks to make Milwaukee a world class eco-city and the Fresh Coast Capital of North America. The City of Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO) is charged with implementing the plan in partnership with other city agencies and community partners.
On my May visit to Milwaukee, I had the opportunity to meet with ECO director Erick Shambarger, community leaders and my longstanding colleague and friend, Howard Snyder. As I have been exploring sustainability initiatives in other US cities, Milwaukee stands out not only for innovative diverse strategies but also for its strong community building approaches.
Groundwork Milwaukee is part of the Groundwork USA network of independent, not-for-profit, environmental businesses called Groundwork Trusts. I first encountered Goundwork Denver last year.
The US programs evolved from a model developed in the UK, where the first Groundwork Trust was founded in 1982 to revitalize abandoned industrial sites in northern England. Since then, Groundwork UK has grown into a network of fifty-two locally based groups.
In 1996, the National Park Service imported this successful program into three pilot communities: Bridgeport, CT; Lawrence, MA; and Providence, RI. Milwaukee was designated a Groundwork USA Pilot Community in 2003. Today there are 19 Groundwork sites in the US and another 9 underdevelopment.
In 2014, Groundwork Milwaukee merged with Milwaukee Urban Gardens, a non-profit that manages dozens of community gardens throughout the City. Today, they have grown to over 90 gardens that are exclusively run by community leaders and volunteers. Since 2006, Groundwork Milwaukee has worked on 284 projects benefiting 203,163 people and actively involving 2,558 adults (over 18 years) and 1,765 youth (under 18 years) thru partnerships with 30 schools.
The Northwest Side Community Development Corporation (NWSCDC) has served the economic development needs of Milwaukee’s low-income communities since 1983. It has assisted neighborhood strategic planning to improve safety, land use planning, development to spur retail growth, and numerous business and workforce development programs.
Under the leadership of Howard Snyder, NWSCDC has received 15 Office of Community Services (OCS) awards from 1986 to 2015; making it one of the most successful CDC manager of these impactful federal Community Economic Development (CED) funds. The 12 most recent OCS projects since the year 2000 have all been business expansion loans, totaling $7,545,981 lent. These 12 projects created 985 total jobs (including low-income and non-low-income) during the project periods, and 826 of these new jobs were filled by low-income job-seekers. Two active projects (awards from 2014 and 2015) are still generating new jobs.
On February 15th, 2012, President Barack Obama recognized the innovative efforts of Diamond Precision, a manufacturing plant that received a loan from Northwest Side CDC to expand its operations and create jobs for low-income people in Milwaukee. In his speech, President Obama stressed the importance of “insourcing” for America’s recovery, praised Milwaukee’s impressive job-creation projects and commended Diamond Precision on bringing work previously done overseas back to the US.
In 2008, the NWSCDC lent $580,000 to DRS Technologies as part of an $11 million facility upgrade that created 51 new manufacturing positions for low-income workers. DRS is a high-tech manufacturer of power and control systems for US Navy ships and submarines. The NWSCDC loan also fostered the creation of a business incubator within the DRS facility, which supported 22 jobs for low-income individuals at Universal Housing Systems (a tenant of the incubator).
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago highlighted the DRS project and the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation as “transforming the approach to creating positive economic impact in distressed communities,” and an unique collaboration that could serve as a national template for community-corporate relations.
In 2012, NWSCDC won a $728,750 OCS grant award to assist in financing the purchase of the former Eaton Corporation headquarters, a seven-story 184,309 square-foot tower. Rebranded as Century City Tower, the building was transitioned from a single-user R&D office building into a multi-disciplinary job accelerator, comprising a multi-tenant facility.
Partnering with the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC) was key to saving Century City Tower and turning it into the Energy Innovation Center, an accelerator for businesses in the Energy, Power, and Controls Technology industry cluster. The offices of the NWSCDC and M-WERC are both housed in Century City Tower, further cementing their ongoing economic development partnership.
M-WERC is a consortium of 90 firms and 4 universities. Its Energy Innovation Center creates, tests, and licenses new technologies with lab space for collaborative research, advanced prototyping center, and large scale product piloting space. Current research is focused on: Distributed Energy Resources & Systems (DERS) and Conversion Architecture for Microgrids and Integrations of Renewable Energy Sources as the next big wave to accelerate growth of the building energy efficiency (BEE) market. NWSCDC is partnering with M-WERC to plan and design advanced Microgrid facilities at pilot sites in their community.
In the community development field, we often use “Re” words of reinvest and revitalize. As we now explore sustainability strategies for our communities we can also consider “restoring” vacant land to community gardens and “recharging” our power sources with renewable energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. But as we do so, we must keep focused that to really “rejuvenate” our communities we need to “revive” our local economies.
There are a lot “Re” words to be found in the Thesaurus for “refresh.” Many of them are being deployed in Milwaukee where they should be: in the community and by the community. That’s a “reality” to be remembered across the country in this political season.