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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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Readers Blog: The World on Wheels

A Jolt Detroit Badly Needed

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In the midst of the economic downturn, Milwaukee has its share of problems. One-third of the city's children live in poverty, the public schools are a disaster, and with taxes set to increase again in the next state budget, businesses might flee the area faster than the speed of a commuter rail train.

But on a recent vacation, I was reminded of an old adage we all learn growing up: "No matter how bad you think you have it, somebody else has it worse." This is probably a common sentiment among many people who have been fortunate enough to have the means to take a pleasure trip during tough times, but it held special meaning, given that my destination was the nation's poorest city. As thousands of fans from around the country descended upon Detroit for college basketball's Final Four, many undoubtedly said a prayer of thanks for being able to lead a life of relative privilege.

While the rest of the country has been in a recession since December 2007, Michigan has been in one for eight years. The state's unemployment rate is the highest in the nation at 12.8%, with Detroit checking in at a mind-blowing 14.6%. (By comparison, Milwaukee's unemployment rate is 9%, actually lower than Wisconsin's 9.4%, according to March figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) According to the Census Bureau's 2008 data, Milwaukee was the nation's seventh-poorest city. Alarming, to be sure, but at least we weren't first.

In short, Detroit needed a shot in the arm after the Obama administration took over General Motors and put Chrysler on notice, and the Final Four gave it a four-day cash cow and a welcome diversion from its plight. Cavernous Ford Field allowed for record crowds. Driving into town, I wondered if the hotel and restaurant signs might read: "Welcome Final Four guests. Please spend freely." But the people didn't need to be persuaded. Revenues are estimated to be between $30 million and $50 million.

The media gave the event the predictable "Let's all enjoy the tournament and forget about our problems for a weekend" template, but that didn't ring hollow when Michigan State qualified and its players talked about what a thrill and honor it was to compete for a national championship in the city where a few of them grew up. When the home team emerged a winner in the first game with 60,000 fans cheering them on, one got the sense that this represented a unifying moment of rare, unbridled joy for the locals. Even homeless people outside the stadium had "Go State" on their signs.

Watching the celebration, I thought about the attributes Milwaukee and Detroit share: poor, blue-collar, racially segregated. It also occurred to me that Miller Park could be adapted for basketball, too, and the Midwest Airlines Center could host the accompanying coaches' convention.

Detroit seized its opportunity on the national stage, but I think Milwaukee could do even better. We could use the money, as well as the excuse to count our blessings.

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GeorgeWill | May 18, 2009 at 12:30 p.m. (report)

34959 There is no study showing 33% of Milwaukee children live in poverty.

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