Friday, July 24, 2009

School of Freshwater Sciences should stimulate revitalization

The Journal Sentinel editorial board continues to shill for locating the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences on prime Lake Michigan shoreline between Discovery World and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

By equating support for the Lake Michigan site with support for the research facility the editorial board is misrepresenting this important locational discussion.

At the Board of Harbor Commissioners public hearing opponents of the former Pieces of Eight location (who numbered supporters by more than 2 to 1) were clear that they supported UWM's effort to establish a School of Freshwater Sciences. Their opposition was to locating the proposed 50 thousand square foot building on prime lakefront property.

Alderman Tony Zielinski was particularly eloquent in suggesting that UWM and the Commission be more strategic in their location of the new school, urging that the investment be used to help revitalize a less pristine waterfront area south of downtown.

Proponents of the Pieces of Eight site like Badger Meter Honcho Rich Meeussen argue that other cities closely tied to a specific industry all boast bricks-and-mortar structures to denote their status. He told a meeting of area business executives that Paris has the Louvre Museum as the centerpiece for art, New York City has the Broadway theater district as the focus of its theater business and Nashville can point to the Grand Ole Opry as the home of country music.

There are more than a few problems with this position.

Milwaukee's identity is not defined by ties to water companies as Meeusen argues. Our commercial identity remains more closely associated with beer, Harley Davidson motorcycles, advanced manufacturing and our now defunct hometown airline. Our city's baseball team is not named the Badger Meters or even the Lake Perch, but the Brewers!

Following Meeusen's logic we would absurdly urge MillerCoors or at least one of our signature microbreweries to relocate to the lakefront.

Meeusen's proposition that the community lacks a signature building is also dead wrong. The Art Museaum designed by the internationally renowned Santiago Calatrava is that signature building. It provides Milwaukee with a soaring aesthetic identity that promotes both the city and Lake Michgan. Locating a 50,000 square foot building near it would, as others have pointed out, detract from its unique relationship to the lake, sky and shore.

Meeusen has been honest that he wants the prime lakefront property location to hawk his firm's meters to out of town corporate clients. What better site than Milwaukee's lakefront with the signature Calatrava as background?

But that ignores two crucial questions. First, should the lakefront be devoted to marketing a private firm's products? The answer is obviously no which is why Meeusen has tied his wagon to the public mission of the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences.

But that raises the second question-does UWM need a 50,000 square foot building if its goal is to conduct fresh water research and graduate education. The answer is a resounding no. That's why half the facility is designed for water product displays.

Meeusen dubious goal is to use the state's bonding authority to subsidize the sale of his firm's merchandise. Public use and control of lakefront property should not be sacrificed for that narrow private objective. Nor should the public's bonding authority be devoted to boast Badger Meter's share price.

Support for a School of Freshwater Sciences does not dictate support for the former Pieces of Eight property. The question the public needs to ask and UWM needs to respond to is where will Milwaukee get the biggest bang for its School of Freshwater Sciences investment buck?

Twice in recent years the City has allowed narrow business interests to dictate public investments that undermined their catalytic economic impact. Miller Park was built in a isolated concrete jungle off I-94 rather than downtown. Other cities like Cleveland and Baltimore more wisely located new stadiums downtown to capture the ancillary economic benefits. More recently UWM made the decision to locate its new engineering building in Wawautosa minimizing the regional economic development benefits of this investment.

Once again the community has the opportunity to maximize the economic gains from a public investment. The School of Freshwater Sciences should not be located on prime lakefront property that already has two signature developments. It should be built on a river or lakefront location where it will stimulate community revitalization and commercial activity as it pursues its important mission of educating a new generation of freshwater scientists and engages in freshwater research.

17 comments:

Dave Reid said...

No. This project isn't about revitalizing a neighborhood.

It is about re-branding Milwaukee. The lake front location matters not because we are selling Badger Meter to the world, but because we are selling Milwaukee to the world and in marketing location matters. The lake front location would add visibility, and status to UWM, and Milwaukee. Whereas the other locations indicate this isn't that important.

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