2008 CPEO Brownfields List Archive

From: Lenny Siegel <lennysiegel@gmail.com>
Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2008 13:49:06 -0800 (PST)
Reply: cpeo-brownfields
Subject: [CPEO-BIF] Report on the Milwaukee Community Workhop
[The following may be downloaded as a 1.1 MB DOC file from

Milwaukee Community Brownfields Workshop

Robert Hersh
Center for Public Environmental Oversight (CPEO)
December 2007

On Saturday morning, December 8, 2007, 35 people braved 8 degrees F. 
temperatures to attend a community brownfields workshop in Milwaukee, 
Wisconsin. The workshop, convened by the Good Jobs and Livable 
Neighborhoods Coalition (GJLN), a local community-based organization, 
and CPEO, focused on cleanup and redevelopment strategies for one of the 
key brownfield properties in the city - the sprawling, former A.O. Smith 
manufacturing complex. For a hundred years, from 1906 until 2006, 
generations of Milwaukee workers built car and truck chassis and other 
components for Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors on 150 acres in the 
north of the city. Now, as is evident from the picture below, most of 
the buildings and factories on the site are vacant.

A.O. Smith - An Industrial Mainstay

For many community residents who attended the workshop, A.O. Smith was 
once a source of good jobs and economic opportunity for themselves, 
their family members, and neighbors. During the post-war industrial boom 
from 1947 to 1973, A.O. Smith was the second largest employer in 
Milwaukee. At the height of the boom it employed some nine thousand 
workers there. The unprecedented growth of good paying, unionized jobs 
during this period was one reason why many African-Americans migrated 
from the South to Milwaukee, in what some historians have called the 
"Late Migration" - in contrast to the "Great Migration" of southern 
blacks to other northern cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, and 
Pittsburgh, a generation earlier.

 From 1940 to 1970 Milwaukee's African-American population grew from 
8,821 (or 1.5% of the city's total) to over 105,000 (14.6% of the 
population). By the late 1960s one-third of A.O. Smith's workforce was 
African-American. According to workshop participants and from various 
historical accounts, A.O. Smith had a reputation as a good place to work 
because of fair wages and its employment and promotion record for 
African-American employees. Union jobs at A.O. Smith meant entry into 
secure blue-collar employment, with opportunities for promotion to more 
skilled, better-paying positions.

Starting in the late 1970's, however, the prospect of full employment 
and secure union jobs in Milwaukee's industries was coming to an end. In 
the course of a generation, no major urban center in America suffered as 
sharp a decline in manufacturing jobs as Milwaukee. In the 1980s the 
city lost two out of every three manufacturing jobs, and with over 40 
percent of black Milwaukeeans drawing paychecks as industrial laborers - 
the highest percentage of any city in the country - the loss of good 
paying union jobs undermined the economic vitality of communities.

A.O. Smith was not immune to the economic upheavals of 
deindustrialization. In 1997, Tower Automotive, a Minneapolis-based 
company, bought A.O. Smith's frame-making business with the intention of 
broadening its product line. But by 2002 employment at the plant had 
shrunk by more than 60% to 2,000 workers, and in 2005 Tower filed for 
protection from creditors in bankruptcy court. In 2006, the last truck 
frame rolled out of the plant, and the remaining 65 production workers 
were let go.

The loss of manufacturing jobs has been devastating for Milwaukee's 
African-American community. In 1970, at the city's industrial zenith, 
the black poverty rate in Milwaukee was 22% lower than the U.S. black 
average. By 2000 the black poverty rate was 34% higher than the national 
figure. Among the nation's 20 most populous cities in 2000, Milwaukee 
had the highest rate of black poverty.
The redevelopment of the site is a high priority for city and state 
officials. The city of Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Department of Natural 
Resources (DNR) formed a partnership to investigate and clean up 
potential brownfields sites along a five-mile industrial corridor. The 
A.O. Smith/Tower site forms the northern boundary (see below).

The city and DNR have used federal brownfields funding to conduct site 
assessments at some 20 properties in the corridor, and they have 
recently obtained funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 
(EPA) to capitalize a revolving loan fund for cleanup in the corridor. 
More recently, the city designated the corridor a "greenlight district," 
a zone where the city makes available funds, such as tax-increment 
financing, to attract businesses, especially green industries, and 
possibly to fund job training.

The state of Wisconsin has also played a role. To further encourage site 
redevelopment, it has designated the A.O. Smith/Tower site as an 
Enterprise Redevelopment Zone and allocated up to $3 million dollars in 
tax credits. To be eligible for the tax credits, companies locating 
their businesses on the site must create full time jobs that pay at 
least 150% of the federal minimum wage.

Redevelopment Challenges

The ability of local residents to influence cleanup and redevelopment 
decisions at the site is complicated by a number of factors. First, 
ownership of the site is fragmented. Properties on the southwest of the 
site have been bought by private investors. Current operations there 
include a recycling plant, warehouses, and distribution centers. On the 
western portion of the site, the city opened a 230,000-square-foot 
Public Works Department facility that currently employs some 300 people. 
But most important, 86 acres on the eastern side of the site, with some 
2.2. million square feet of industrial space, was recently purchased by 
Milwaukee Industrial Trade Center LLC, an investor group led by Midwest 
Rail and Dismantling Co. The intentions of this group are unclear. Some 
local residents are concerned that the site will be divided into smaller 
parcels or leased to various businesses, such as warehousing or 
distribution centers, that provide relatively few good jobs. Others 
believe that the investor group, aware of the city's interest in buying 
the property, is willing to sit on the site until the city meets its 
sales price, thus adding more uncertainty to the redevelopment process.

Second, while the city and DNR have been able to assess the 
environmental conditions of some 20 sites in the corridor, they have not 
done so for the A.O. Smith/Tower site. Thus, they do not have a detailed 
picture of possible contamination issues. The corridor properties where 
assessments have been conducted are either city-owned or tax-delinquent. 
At these sites, the city has the authority to issue inspection warrants 
to gain access, conduct site assessments, and if need be, undertake 
sampling. By contrast, the A.O. Smith/Tower site has been in private 
hands for a century. Over the past few decades, the DNR has investigated 
various company-reported hazardous chemical spills, but there has not 
been, to our knowledge, any site-wide assessment or systematic sampling 
to determine the nature and extent of contamination. After a century of 
heavy industry, the site undoubtedly has some degree of contamination. 
But until community groups and others have a better handle on its 
severity, it is unclear what cleanup options are on the table, and how 
these options may hinder or facilitate reuse options for the property.

And third, the redevelopment of the A.O. Smith/Tower site is part of a 
complex set of issues that underpin local and state brownfield 
initiatives in the corridor: the critical lack of well paying jobs, the 
social and spatial isolation of inner city residents, the absence of 
meaningful regional equity policies, a weak real estate market, turf 
disputes between local, county and regional public agencies involved 
with community involvement and planning, and a history of mistrust 
between local non-white residents and the city.

Workshop Themes

GJLN organized the workshop, entitled a Tale of Two Cities, to give 
community residents a firsthand example of how neighbors, 
community-based organizations, and unions in Denver were able to 
influence the cleanup and redevelopment of a similar large brownfield 
site in Denver. That site, the Gates Rubber factory, resembles 
Milwaukee's A.O. Smith/Tower site in size, scale, and historical 
significance. Until 1995, for example, the Gates Rubber factory in 
Denver employed five thousand workers. Like A.O. Smith, it had been the 
economic backbone of minority neighborhoods for decades. And its closure 
led to the loss of good jobs and consequent decline of the entire area.

After introductory remarks about the A.O. Smith/Tower site by GJLN 
Executive director Pam Fendt and presentations by CPEO staff on 
brownfield cleanup and redevelopment issues, Tim Lopez, a Denver 
community activist, took the floor. A leader of the the Campaign for 
Responsible Development, a broad and influential community coalition, 
Lopez described its work at the Gates Rubber site.

Tim discussed how the community coalition in Denver negotiated a 
benefits package with the city and the developer of the Gates Rubber 
factory, Cherokee Denver, to ensure that residents of adjacent 
neighborhoods benefited from the site's redevelopment. Although it took 
four years and many, many hours to finalize, the benefits package with 
the city and the developer included prevailing wage provisions, 350 
affordable housing units, a more accessible and attractive development, 
and decent paying jobs for people in the neighborhood. The agreement 
also helped to create a voluntary cleanup advisory board to oversee 
investigation, remediation, and long-term site management.

According to Lopez, the community coalition was successful because it 
negotiated with elected officials and the developer with a single voice 
and a single set of demands. During these negotiations, Cherokee Denver 
sought approval of some 126 million dollars in public subsidies to go 
forward with the project. The coalition used its political clout to 
convince Cherokee that it could help it obtain government subsidies if 
the developer would incorporate the coalition's demands into its plans. 
Since the package was finalized in 2006, Cherokee has more recently 
agreed to provide jobs that pay competitive wages for local residents in 
both the construction and retail industries.

Workshop participants appeared inspired by the Denver model. At the end 
of the workshop Jennifer Epps, a GJLN community organizer, led a 
spirited discussion about community organizing strategies that could 
build on the momentum and enthusiasm of the workshop - following up on 
several of Lopez's suggestions. Clearly, Milwaukee activists are well 
aware that implementing a community benefits package at the 
A.O.Smith/Tower site will not be easy or straightforward. It will 
require considerable commitment and dedication over several years. The 
December 8 workshop was a robust first step along this road.


Lenny Siegel
Executive Director, Center for Public Environmental Oversight
a project of the Pacific Studies Center
278-A Hope St., Mountain View, CA 94041
Voice: 650/961-8918 or 650/969-1545
Fax: 650/961-8918

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