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A Special WUWM News SeriesThe Milwaukee River allowed commerce and industry to thrive during the city's formative years and provided recreation. However, disregard for the river's health led to decades of decay.WUWM News explores recent developments to rejuvenate the Milwaukee River and their success at drawing people back to the city's historic arterial.

Businesses Benefit From Views, Traffic, Energy


All week we’ve been taking a close look at the Milwaukee River. We heard about the waterway’s history – how the community used it decades ago for industry and transportation – to modern developments, such as luxury condominiums and trendy restaurants. Today, WUWM’s Erin Toner reports on the value of the Milwaukee River to downtown businesses.Imagine a traffic jam – on the water. That’s how Eric Reinelt describes the pace of commerce on the Milwaukee River at the turn of the 20th century. Reinelt just retired as director of the city’s port.

“The Milwaukee River and the Menomonee River and the canals associated with the Menomonee River were really the interstate highway equivalence of what’s going on today,” Reinelt says.

Reinelt says a steady stream of ships transported items for grain elevators, lumberyards, breweries and other riverfront industries.

“By the 1920s, the city at that time had something like 23 bridges, but there were 42,000 bridge openings,” Reinelt says.

For example, the Wisconsin Avenue bridge opened and closed up to 10 times a day – and ships did not move fast.

“But that’s all gone now. The Milwaukee River is rather quiet in terms of commercial shipping. The Corps of Engineers stopped dredging within the last 10 or 15 years,” Reinelt says.

Reinelt says nearly all the industry that was located on the river in the 19th and 20th centuries has shut down or moved, and now, ships that cross Lake Michigan transfer their cargo at the port.

While the Milwaukee River is no longer a critical channel for commerce, it continues sustaining business development in the city – just in different ways.

A few dozen flags flap in the breeze at Manpower Group’s world headquarters, located on the Milwaukee River. In 2007, the company moved from an office park in Glendale to downtown Milwaukee, to take advantage of the area’s rebirth over the past few decades.

“It’s really exciting because you’re seeing a lot of the buildings that are going up, residential areas, more restaurants, more hotels and just more activity on the riverfront.”

Mara Swan is Manpower’s executive vice president of Global Strategy and Talent. She says the company flaunts the riverfront when recruiting high-quality employees from all over the world, and the staff loves it and the city’s Riverwalk.

"You should have been here two weeks ago. We had ping pong tables set up here, we had hot dogs, we’ve run regattas on the river and our employees walk pretty much every day on this thing, so it’s just really great to be located down here,” Swan says.

Manpower is just one of scores of businesses that have opened downtown in recent years to benefit from the views, the foot traffic and the energy of the bustling riverfront.

Rocky Marcoux is Milwaukee’s development commissioner.

“The river in many respects has become a symbol for the city’s rebirth and its renaissance and I think’s definitely one of the first places I’d bring people to when I want to get them interested in the city,” Marcoux says.

Marcoux says in one section of the Riverwalk – from Clybourn Street to the Beerline – property values have increased by more than $300 million during the last two decades.

“Even factoring in the recent downturn obviously caused by the Great Recession. There is built-in value to the river and to the downtown and that will never change,” Marcoux says.

Part of the built-in value is the water.

Several downtown buildings use river water in their cooling systems, and then return it to the waterway.

I’m inside 735 N. Water Street – the so-called City Center building. It houses offices and a new Gold’s Gym. Down in the hot and muggy basement, a pipe is sucking in river water – at huge volumes – to produce air conditioning for this century-old building.

“Per day, 907,000 gallons…per month, 27 million, and per year, 299 million.”

That’s Sheldon Oppermann, vice president of Compass Properties. He says after the building uses the river water, it’s filtered and returned. Several buildings along the river use its chilly water for their cooling systems. Oppermann calls the system a money and energy saver.

As we stand in the morning sun on a dock behind 735 N. Water, Oppermann says office buildings have struggled during the recession.

“Downtown Milwaukee is no exception. Buildings on the river have a little bit of advantage because it’s sort of a serene setting. You come in on the front of Water Street, it’s very busy, there’s traffic and buses and cars and people and you come out the back door and this is really like a park. There’s water, it’s kind of quiet,” Oppermann says.

And there are other amenities for workers. Oppermann points to a space on the ground floor of his building. That’s where a bistro will soon become the latest restaurant to open along Milwaukee’s riverfront.

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