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Region turns to clusters as growth strategy

From California's wine region to Silicon Valley and North Carolina's research triangle, economic strategists rejoice whenever they can lay claim to a "cluster" - a concentration of interconnected businesses, innovators and university programs with enough critical mass to lure even more investment and jobs.

So it might come as a surprise that metro Milwaukee, which hardly discussed cluster strategy a few years ago, now has no fewer than nine at various stages of development. Whether they go anywhere or not, it's the longest roster of economic sectors that the region has ever pursued in any organized fashion.

"Cluster development is a key business climate activity," said Pat O'Brien, director of industrial recruitment at the seven-county Milwaukee 7 economic development consortium.

A few already have garnered publicity, such as the effort to promote the region's stable of water technology companies under the World Water Hub banner. And it was only logical to try to expand the base of food and beverage companies in an area long associated with cheese, beer and sausage.

But how many knew the metro area had inaugurated a cluster for energy technologies, controls and automation - the Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium, or WERC - complete with its own staff and board of directors?

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