Make no small plans
By Joni Moths MuellerRocky Marcoux didn’t sleep his first two weeks at Marquette. Every time an ambulance siren sounded in the proximity of McCormick Hall, he jumped out of bed to catch the action. This small-town boy grew up in rural Connecticut, but as a college freshman, he quickly glommed onto big-city excitement.
Now working as the commissioner of city development, Marcoux still can’t tamp down his exuberance for the city. He may be Milwaukee’s most passionate pocket of civic pride.
Everyone should get to tour Milwaukee with Marcoux and stop at award-winning developments, promising intersections and an apocalyptic-looking tract that is the city’s newest venture. It’s a frenetic tour with a pitchman who is part-historian, part-sociologist and part-economic realist.
Marcoux, Sp ’82, is passionate about attracting town-builder jobs, building workforce housing and creating new blended neighborhoods. He talks about the challenges the city is meeting and beating and takes pride in the fact that empty nesters and young professionals are reigniting downtown Milwaukee. “People lose track of the cumulative value that’s already been added to the city,” he says. “Milwaukee has reversed a 50-year population decline.”
Marcoux thinks constantly about the 96.9 square miles that comprise Milwaukee. There is no land to annex so what’s within the grid of city blocks is precious. When he drives past an abandoned building or overgrown parking lot and says “we’ve got an idea for that spot,” you can believe it. This city ambassador has been called part-bulldog and part-evangelist when it comes to pushing Milwaukee toward a more prosperous future. His intrepid determination is applauded by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who says: “Rocky is dedicated to Milwaukee’s future. His high energy and enthusiasm are exactly what is needed.”
Today’s tour incorporates a generous pass through the heart of campus. Marcoux is over the top in expressing what the university means to the city. When the economy started to slide in the 1970s and some of the biggest companies began looking for other places to operate, Marcoux says, “Marquette didn’t put on wheels and move out.” The university invested in its hometown, becoming an anchor that he credits for helping set in motion today’s resurgence of the entire surrounding neighborhood called Avenues West. He points out critical pieces supporting the rise of Avenues West. Of course there are Marquette’s contributions, but move just beyond campus and striking change is evident. The city is redeveloping a key thoroughfare, 27th Street, to attract new businesses and make it pedestrian-friendly. New construction mingles with stately architecture. There is the new Milwaukee Center for Independence assisting special needs populations. The Milwaukee Academy of Science and Historic Lofts on Kilbourn are carved out of a portion of the massive complex that once housed Lutheran Hospital. Adapting existing structures for today’s users is a concept that’s getting big play in Milwaukee. “It’s just a collision of good things that forward-thinking developers are working together to solve one of the city’s top issues — vacant buildings,” Marcoux says.
He speaks reverentially of the people who live here and prophetically of those the city needs to attract to complete its makeover. His focus is on building up abandoned land that once served an industrial use, attracting new business development to increase Milwaukee’s taxable base and jobs. “Some people will look only at the challenge of attracting the college-educated town-builder workforce,” he says, “but we can’t forget about people that lack that skill set. If we lose ground with employers that are employing our hardest-to-employ people, then we’re destined to fail.”
The latter connects to him on a personal level. Marcoux grew up in a textile community where few people went to college. His dad enlisted in the service to escape working at the mill locals called “Brick U.” When the mill moved south for cheaper labor, it devastated his hometown. “I saw firsthand what happens to the fabric of communities and families without jobs,” he says.
After graduating, Marcoux went to work for the Milwaukee Housing Authority. It was an education in the challenges facing low-income neighborhoods and his first exposure to “super-block” developments. “I saw the drawbacks in the architecture,” he says, “that you don’t get good results when you build something that looks like a prison. When you’re not respecting human dignity, there’s no expectation to have other than disastrous results.”
In the 1990s, with Marcoux leading the effort, the housing authority redeveloped four superblock housing projects with assistance from the HUD Hope IV program. Down came the massive round towers that Marcoux calls “warehouses for the poor.” He believed an architectural solution that offered first-floor accessibility and curb appeal would build pride of ownership and sense of community where none existed before. And it worked. “That’s the magic,” he says, “that you don’t realize it’s public housing, and you do that by having good architecture, replacing the junk that was built in the 1950s and ’60s, and by giving people places to live where they can thrive.”
Marcoux is ecstatic about what’s happening in other parts of the city, too. “We have an incredible number of deals on the table,” he says. The transformation of the 21-acre Pabst Brewery into a new neighborhood is Marcoux’s perfect example of property redevelopment. This project, made possible with substantial support from philanthropist Joseph Zilber, Bus Ad ’39 and Law ’41, and city funding, will include office buildings, housing, restaurants and plenty of parking. According to Mike Mervis, vice president and assistant to the chairman of Zilber Ltd., the project is an example of how the city and private developers can work together for a common goal. “This is a case where Rocky took the bull by the horns and worked hard to understand our vision,” Mervis says. “He participated in how it was modified and shaped and was central to moving it forward, along with the mayor and common council. Both sides were committed to finding a reasonable solution, and that’s how good government works.”
The $500 million of development under way in the Park East corridor is another example of adaptive redevelopment. Since the city and state took down the Park East freeway ramp, the city has been working with developers on projects that are beginning to take off. The Milwaukee School of Engineering built the Kern Center. Most recently a boutique hotel opened to much fanfare.
“We can’t afford to build all of this as a city, so we set the table,” Marcoux says, by providing the infrastructure. “This is being built by people who are investing money and getting return on that investment.”
Nearby Brewers Hill, Bronzeville and the Westside are picking up steam every day. “There are just cool things happening there,” he says. And what’s taking place in the Menomonee Valley he calls a study in extraordinary collaboration of committed partners. Many of the industries that were located in the valley ceased functioning or moved away in the 1970s, and people, Marcoux says, turned their back on the valley. Today the valley is thriving thanks to substantial public and private investment that transformed it into a modern industrial park. Ambitions for this parcel keep growing. Marcoux recently returned from an overseas trip with Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Richard Leinenkugel, Bus Ad ’80, and Milwaukee 7 representatives that was focused on attracting a major international company to Milwaukee. He’s particularly hopeful but declines to name the company until the deal is real. It becomes clear two weeks later, when Ingeteam, a Spanish manufacturer of wind-turbine generators, announces it will open its first North American plant in the valley, bringing 270 jobs to the region. Mick Hatch, president of the Menomonee Valley Partners Board and attorney at Foley & Lardner LLP, says Ingeteam’s decision is “one of the best examples” of Marcoux’s effectiveness. “He pays attention to the details and emphasizes the right things,” Hatch says, “access to quality workforce, an efficient and highly skilled supply chain, transportation infrastructure, and a city government that is eager to help.”
More plans for the valley are under way to create a water campus where educational resources and companies that need a steady water supply or access to water technology can locate. There were people who said the Menomonee Valley project was too risky. Those same voices may be sounding alarms about the city’s acquisition of 87 acres of land on the north side, property that was the former home of AO Smith and, later, Tower Automotive. Marcoux says it looks post-apocalyptic, and he’s right. There is a neglected feel to land that is bounded by a major thoroughfare and sits on a railroad line. The city will invest $35 million to take down many existing buildings and build roads and infrastructure. “We believe we can drive 1,200 jobs out of this real estate,” Marcoux says. “We’re calling it Century City, the idea being this is a new development for a new century.”
Marcoux could not be more excited about retrieving this piece of land. He’s convinced it has the same potential as the valley. To those who say it’s not worth the risk, he asks with more than a little attitude: “Does that mean we’ve consigned this portion of the city to look like this forever? That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to lead, to mitigate the risk and rally the private sector. We’ve put down a flag here. That’s the effective and practical role for government.”