MILWAUKEE — A century ago, the seven-story brick building a few blocks from downtown was a factory — a symbol of an era when Milwaukee and other cities ringing the Great Lakes were industrial powerhouses churning out steel, automobiles and appliances. Eventually the region's manufacturing core crumbled, and the structure became an all-but-forgotten warehouse.
Now it's getting a makeover and a new mission. It will reopen this summer as a hive of business experimentation swarming with scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They'll share a lab where new technologies can be tested. Office suites will host startup companies, including one devising a system for cultivating algae as biofuel, another producing a type of pavement that lets rainwater seep into the ground instead of flooding sewers.
The center is part of a broader effort unfolding across the Great Lakes region to regain lost prosperity by developing a "blue economy" — a network of industries that develop products and services related to water, from pump and valve manufacturers to resorts offering vacations along redeveloped lakeshores.
As growing water scarcity casts a shadow over the economic boom in warmer states, many in the long-scorned northlands are hoping they can finally make their abundance of freshwater a magnet for businesses and jobs that are now going elsewhere. The idea is either a perfect nexus of opportunity and timing, or— as some in the Sun Belt believe— just another longshot attempt by a cold and downtrodden region to reverse history.
In the eight Great Lakes states, organizations devoted to the venture are springing up, with headquarters, government grants and binders full of Power Points and five-year plans. Universities are establishing freshwater science and engineering programs. Businesses are developing products such as advanced filtration systems for sale in countries where water isn't just scarce, but also polluted. Milwaukee has taken a pivotal role from its perch beside Lake Michigan, with $83.5 million in public and private money budgeted over the next year to support water-related businesses and research.