Two weeks ago the U.S. Bowling Congress (USBC) announced that it will move its national headquarters and 190 jobs from Greendale to Arlington, Texas.
The decision was made despite concerted efforts by the Milwaukee 7 and state officials to keep the Congress in Milwaukee. Even Sports Illustrated columnist Frank Deford joined the effort writing that Milwaukee and bowling go together like baseball and crackerjacks.
Once the decision to relocate was announced, the usual cast of market fundamentalists used the decision to attack Milwaukee's business climate, suggesting that the USBC was leaving because taxes are too high and regulations to onerous.
The facts suggest a different motivation- to integrate the operations of the USBC and the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America (BPAA), bowling's trade association, which is located in Arlington, and use the resulting efficiencies to help grow the sport of bowling. USBC President Jeff Bojé admitted as much stating:” With USBC and BPAA under the same roof, there's an untold number of ways we can work together to help grow the sport. There already are a number of joint programs that we work together on and this proposal would allow us to do so even more."
This was a deal that had little or nothing to do with tax rates and regulation.
Rather it is an attempt to revive a sport that has been losing market share for years by promoting collaboration between bowling's two most prominent organizations.
The decision was an admission that the USBC, created in 2004 by the merger of four bowling organizations had failed to"... reverse an exodus of members the past 20 years, stabilize bowling as both a recreational activity and a sport and address bowling's stodgy image." Nationally the combined membership in the organizations has fallen from about 10 million 20 years ago to about less than 3 million today.
Bowling grew as the nation's manufacturing base and industrial workforce expanded. By the end of World War II, bowling was a billion dollar industry that involved between 12 to 16 million Americans. It reached this status in part because it was promoted by the U.S. armed forces during the War and because unlike tennis or golf anyone with a few dollars and the desire could play.
In the postwar years bowling alleys were stripped of their hardscrabble origins and unsavory reputations. They were reconstituted with chrome and neon, becoming "transitional" institutions that exposed and helped integrate mainly white working-class families into the emerging middle-class mass consumer culture.
Milwaukee's working class embraced bowling. Unions like UAW 248 (Allis Chalmers), UAW 75 (Seaman Body/ American Motors) United Steelworkers 1114 (Harnischfeger) and UE1111 (Allen Bradley) organized teams with thousands of participants. Dick Stoll regularly reported on bowling in the Wisconsin CIO News' "Down Your Alley" column.
Bowling has declined as Milwaukee has hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs and as other forms of recreation have become more accessible and desirable. In a real sense consumers have voted with their feet, leaving the bowling alleys and the USBC behind.
The USBC decision is an effort to reverse these very real market trends as was the M7s effort to retain the headquarters in Milwaukee.
One of the ironies of the M7 approach to economic development has been been its focus on retaining corporate headquarters even as it has embraced the global economy's relocation of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs from Milwaukee.
Its efforts to save the headquarters of Midwest Express, Miller and now the USBC stand in stark contrast to its laissez faire approach to deindustrialization and support for "free trade" agreements like NAFTA that has cost Wisconsin 25,000 manufacturing jobs and China's most favored nation status.
Put simply the M7 has worked tirelessly to save the job of Midwest CEO Tim Huekesma, but done little for Milwaukee's real life Ralph Kramdens.
The failure to keep the USBC in Greendale, despite a package of more than $8 million, also suggests the limitations of an economic development approach that relies on subsidies and economic incentives.
Such an approach is inadequate because every region of the country offers similar deals. Arlington's competitive advantage was the possibility of creating a critical mass of bowling activity on an international campus. It's the same reason Madison is emerging as a biotech center-federal and state funded stem cell research conducted at the University of Wisconsin has created a critical mass of scientific talent and knowledge that is attracting additional public and private investment. As this research is commercialized and the UW and Wisconsin Technical College System produce the sector's scientific and technical workers, the state's biotech sector will expand.
This economic development model can work in Milwaukee if we strengthen relations between our advanced manufacturing sector and the area's engineering schools, technical colleges and apprenticeship programs.
Such an approach won't solve all of area's economic problems, particularly Milwaukee's depression level rates of African American unemployment. For that we need to ensure that publicly subsidized developments like the Park East or UWM's Engineering School include community benefits such as local hiring and training and pay the prevailing wage. In addition, we should press to locate projects like the new Engineering School in the City of Milwaukee to maximize its economic impact.
These targeted economic development strategies are far more promising than offering the same economic incentives as every other region or engaging in self-flagellation.
The question is whether Milwaukee's political and civic leadership has the resolve to pursue them?