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A (modern) Tale of Two Cities: Milwaukee and Madison inch together

MADISON – First, a full disclosure: I’ve been hawking the concept of the “I-Q Corridor” connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and beyond for a couple of years, so it’s no surprise I would think it’s swell that the mayors of Milwaukee and Madison are finally finding common ground.

Then again, it’s still something of a shock that it may be actually happening.

You don’t have to be a student of Wisconsin history to know that past Milwaukee mayors often looked upon Madison with disdain. I doubt Henry Meier even visited Madison during his 28-year tenure as Milwaukee’s mayor, and he wouldn’t have admitted it if he did. John Norquist stopped by occasionally during his 16 years as mayor, but only long enough to berate everyone in the Capitol and leave.

Most Madison mayors in the past would have been happy to visit Milwaukee, but they would have gotten only as far as Waukesha County, complained about the traffic and turned around.

So it was more than a bit refreshing last week to be a part of a forum in which Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who holds two UW-Madison degrees) and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz (who grew up in Milwaukee County) pledging they will work together where possible for the betterment of both cities.
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At a forum sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Barrett and Cieslewicz announced the creation of the “M2 collaborative” to work on a shared legislative agenda, the future of high-speed rail connecting Milwaukee and Madison, the creation of a “green technology triangle,” and a possible 2016 Olympic bid that could catch some of the venue overflow from Chicago.

“The more we can come together,” Barrett said, “the better it will be – and that needs to be more than Madison going to Miller Park or Milwaukee to the Capitol Square.”

Cieslewicz agreed: “I think the biggest obstacle is building understanding among our constituents about the values of building a relationship with the other city.”

Both mayors may find that many of their constituents already understand why it’s important.

There aren’t many business leaders today in Milwaukee or Madison who believe the path to prosperity revolves around competing with people on the other end of I-94. Success in the 21st century economy means selling goods and services on a regional, national and global basis, not just within the confines of a single state or part of a state. While there are some business leaders in Milwaukee who were slow to realize the city needed to rebuild its manufacturing base, that had little or nothing to do with Madison and almost everything to do with global trends.

There aren’t many academic leaders who think a Madison-Milwaukee rivalry makes sense, either. The UW-Madison or its affiliates, such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, are forming partnerships with Milwaukee-area research institutions such as the Medical College of Wisconsin and the UW-Milwaukee. Chancellor Carlos Santiago of UW-Milwaukee doesn’t want to compete with UW-Madison, but he would like to emulate some of its success in spinning off high-tech companies.

Nor are there aren’t many cultural leaders who think a wall should divide Madison and Milwaukee. Supporters of the arts would be thrilled if more people from Madison visited the Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Arts Museum, the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum or the Discovery World Museum, and if more people from Milwaukee took in a performance at Madison’s Overture Center.

It’s too early, of course, to know if the M2 collaborative can actually collaborate. Some tough issues still divide the cities, not the least of which are state government aid formulas that sometimes penalize one city in favor of the other, or which reward bad behavior in one city while punishing good policy in the other.

Still, it was a night when Barrett made it to the forum on time despite a flat tire on I-94 and Cieslewicz needed to skip part of a pivotal City Council meeting. Better yet, they’ve pledged to hold a similar forum in Milwaukee. That’s a start, which is more than existed for years.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. He moderated the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters forum on May 16 in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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