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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Project Milwaukee: Does Chicago Need Milwaukee?

We look at perspectives south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border as our series on regionalism continues.

This week WUWM has featured a series, Project Milwaukee: Southern Connections. We've reported on efforts to cultivate the corridor from Milwaukee into northern Illinois.

We talked with regional planners, business people and elected officials. Many touted potential benefits for Wisconsin, of thinking regionally and ignoring state lines.

In this report, Ann-Elise Henzl examines Illinois' perspective: what does that state have to gain by including southeastern Wisconsin in its plans?

When some Wisconsin drivers head south on I-94, the most noticeable sign they've crossed into Illinois is the first tollbooth.

But the state line hardly registers for Kathy Schroeder. She crosses it hundreds of times a year, commuting from her home in rural Racine County to her job in Deerfield.

"It's about 55 minutes if I'm going the speed limit," Schroeder says.

Schroeder works at the North and South America headquarters of Astellas Pharma, one of Japan's biggest pharmaceutical companies. She moved to Wisconsin about five years ago, after living in Chicago.

Schroeder says the decision was motivated by both a change in circumstances and a desire for something new.

"My husband was working for a company and he transferred to Milwaukee, and we started looking at what our different options were. We both had talked about living some place a little bit more rural and we purchased a 100-year old home and a couple of acres of land," Schroeder says.

About a 20 minute drive north of Astellas is another Chicago-area medical and pharmaceutical company, Abbott. During this busy rush hour afternoon, many cars leaving the employee parking lot have Wisconsin license plates.

"We've determined that 50 percent of people that live in Kenosha County work outside of Kenosha County. My bet is a good chunk of them work at places like Abbott Laboratories," says Lance Pressl, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

He says southeastern Wisconsin is an asset for Illinois, in part because it expands housing options. But he says that just scratches the surface.

For instance, Pressl says Wisconsin has available land on which Chicago companies can expand and a quality workforce to fill jobs created. And he says the Milwaukee area leads the way in efforts to protect Chicago's greatest natural resource: Lake Michigan.

Pressl is referring to work underway at the Great Lakes WATER Institute at UWM.

"They're knocking the ball out of the park, as far as the research that they're doing. So we stand to benefit in Chicago and in Elgin, Illinois, based on the work that they do there. We also have an opportunity to complement and supplement the work that they do there."

Yet, Pressl says there's even a greater benefit for northeastern Illinois' connection to southeastern Wisconsin. He says together, they help make up a 21-county stretch of land, extending around the southern end of Lake Michigan.

A billboard in Waukegan encourages Illinois residents to take advantage of Milwaukee's airport. Chicago-based business organizations count the airport as a regional asset.

Pressl says combined, the region has more than 11 million people and countless businesses, creating a region capable of competing in the global economy.

Rita Athas agrees greater Chicago is stronger when linked with its neighbors. She's president of World Business Chicago. Its mission is to lure global headquarters and major companies to the city.

"International companies look to the broader region for not only where their headquarters are going to be, but where their supply chain is going to come from, what kind of auxiliary services they're going to need," Athas says.

Athas says the broader region's assets include the plentiful colleges and universities, and the people who graduate from them.

"The labor market is a highly skilled, highly educated segment. And especially between Milwaukee and Chicago there are so many of the 25-34 year olds that all the companies are trying to lure. The knowledge-based economy is really looking for those types of employees, and the schools that are in Milwaukee certainly help feed that whole segment of that age group that companies are really attracted to," Athas says.

It's not just corporations taking advantage of the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor. Nonprofits are collaborating across state lines, sharing ideas and resources.

But there's one area where regionalism tends to be in shorter supply: inter-state politics.

Sparks flew a few months ago between the governors of Illinois and Wisconsin, with both saying they'd lure businesses away from the other state.

Lance Pressl of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Foundation says some elected officials are hesitant to cooperate. He has faith that'll change, sooner or later: "I think people will see that on a global scale we have to pull together as best we can. It doesn't mean we have to sing Kumbaya around a fire in the forest. But where we can partner, why not? Where we can take advantage of our mutual assets, why not?"

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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