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Rust Belt reborn: Milwaukee reinvents itself as clean manufacturing capital

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Milwaukee wants to be the "Clean Machine Shop to the World." And it's doing so with its old forté: manufacturing.

Can America's Rust Belt shake off its, well, rust?

The region that stretches from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, thus named for its manufacturing prowess, has had a tough time of it for the last 50 years.

As manufacturing jobs have moved overseas -- such as for the steel and automotive industries -- a wave of economic destruction has been left behind.

Just think of the cities: Buffalo. Cleveland. Detroit. Gary. It's like a Mad Libs word bank for the sentence, "Well, at least we're not as bad as..."

But as clean technology emerges in the United States, backed by federal incentives and a wealth of talent (and funding), the region that stands to benefit is the region that needs it most: the Midwest.

Why? Because if you can put together a car, you can put together a wind turbine.

I spoke with Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development, about how his city is planning a renaissance -- and why mayor Tom Barrett won't let city officials say "Rust Belt" anymore.

SmartPlanet: Milwaukee recently landed a $15 million project from Spanish renewable energy firm Ingeteam. Why Milwaukee?

RM: We competed for them, they were looking for a North American footprint.

We have tremendous potential in offshore wind on the Great Lakes. If you count up how much shoreline there is on the Great Lakes, it's pretty dramatic.

According to the [American] Wind Energy Association, the two largest markets for wind moving forward are China and the United States because they're the most underserved in wind.

We visited Ingeteam's facility in Bilbao, Spain. The day before our presentation, 55 percent of the energy consumed in Spain was generated by wind.

If you look at that market, the EU is saturated right now. Where do you go from there for growth? The Midwest has strong potential. The strongest potential is actually in Texas.

SmartPlanet: We interviewed T. Boone Pickens back in February. He's keen on natural gas.

RM: T. Boone Pickens has a huge, massive wind farm.

The main reason [Ingeteam] came here, if you look at manufacturing in the U.S., the second-highest concentration of manufacturing jobs per capita is southeastern Wisconsin. The highest concentration is actually San Jose.

We have a very broad range of sectors. If you look at Detroit...we've never been sector-specific. We have original equipment manufacturers and a huge amount of influence in the supply chain.

Milwaukee used to pride itself on being the "Machine Shop to the World," and there's a lot of truth to that. You just don't declare yourself that, it comes after decades.

What's left is already gone. What remains is very high-quality, value added manufacturing. And that's what we do.

We have a very safe place to do business here. A lot of our technology is high-tech.

We're not going to walk away from manufacturing. We take exception to that. We're not hoping it's coming back -- it's here! We have a lot of people employed in manufacturing and we intend to keep them employed.

SmartPlanet: Ingeteam's facility is for wind power. What other cleantech ventures has Milwaukee entertained?

RM: We're first per capita in electric motor workers. That's what Ingeteam does, that was a major point of attraction for them. That plays into every other piece, including high-speed rail.

We have been moving forward a high-speed rail initiative [that began] many years earlier; that's what allowed us to capitalize on federal funding. Talgo will be making the two trains that Wisconsin has purchased. They decided to locate their manufacturing headquarters in Milwaukee, on the former site of AW Automotive Group.

SmartPlanet: We talk about smart cities initatives a lot on SmartPlanet. What's Milwaukee doing?

RM: We've got a 97-square-mile footprint. The only way we can grow is make what we have work better, and make what we have denser.

We're going back into the areas that people have walked away from, these brownfield sites, and we're doing the environmental remediation work on them and then we market them. We buy enough land in enough quantity for industrial office parks.

We have a [good] job-to-yield-per-acre figure. A big thing we have to contend with is a combined sewer system -- you see them a lot in Eastern cities -- which creates a real headache when it rains [and they overflow into the streets].

One strategy is to remove the stormwater from the combined sewer system. We're redirecting it, doing bioremediation, everything.

There's also going to be the heavy-rail extension. The Metra line from Chicago -- we're hoping to move it from Kenosha, Wisconsin to the city of Racine.

Part of our strategy is to get as close as we can to Chicago, to its transportation assets. Chicago has a huge rail bottleneck, so we're saying, send your stuff over the water, and we can actually eliminate the bottleneck at Chicago.

SmartPlanet: As a city planner, it sounds like you've got a lot on your plate.

RM: This is the most exciting time to have this job! You've got to be smarter, denser....You can't grow your tax base if nobody's willing to build anything on land.

This is a classic role where government should get involved. And once it gets to the point where it's market-ready, get the hell out of the way.

We've reversed a 50-year decline in population. We're over 600,000 and we're hoping that the latest census will take us higher. Younger professionals and white flight [people] are moving back to the city.

We've done a lot of adaptive reuse. Philly, Boston, Chicago have all done this in some regard. We've been able to convert a substantial amount of what used to be industrial sites into loft condos and other cool buildings that appeal to young professionals.

We've been able to create a real urban renaissance.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure