The history of almost every American city features a series of boom and bust cycles. Milwaukee in the 1950s was a bustling, manufacturing metropolis. But the city’s fortunes fell in subsequent decades, and while the downtown has made a recovery, other aspects of the city are still a work in progress.
It’s a story Mick Cornett recognizes. Cornett served as mayor of Oklahoma City from 2004 to 2018. That city was virtually on life support in the 1990s but is now a completely different place as a result of several key policy decisions and some specialized taxes voters approved. He believes it’s a recipe other mid-sized metropolitan areas could follow.
"Over the next couple decades, you're gonna see these mid-size cities, like Oklahoma City and Milwaukee, have great opportunities to attract the millennial generation and the generation coming in just behind it," says Cornett.
His new book, "The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros," looks at the many reasons some people are flocking to smaller cities and avoiding larger metropolises.
"What it appears is that they are more attracted to cities that size than the big cities — New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They want to be able to afford a house. They don't want to spend their hours in traffic congestion. They're looking for a better quality of life, a more urban environment, a less auto-centric lifestyle," he says.
Cornett believes these cities should capitalize on this growing interest by focusing their energy on creating amenities that attract young professionals and families. He believes they need to keep working and moving to solve tomorrow's issues, instead of resting on their laurels.
He explains, "It's one of the frustrations of creating a city, a better city, is that you never reach your destination. You've got to always keep planning and always keep inventing."
When Cornett became mayor, the city was still suffering from its association with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The terrorist attack has had a lasting impact on the city's reputation, which Cornett says had a big impact on its brand.
"Unfortunately, cities don't really control their brand or are not in complete control of their brand. You know, we had been branded by tragedy," he explains.
In contrast, Cornett feels Milwaukee has a positive reputation: "Milwaukee is well branded. I mean, through the decades it's very strong in pop culture and people know it for different reasons. And that awareness is something that Milwaukee can build on and continues to."