John Gurda, a local historian, said it's about time Milwaukee gave up chasing the same high tech medicine and computer software companies sought by every other city.
"The strength of this (water-oriented) strategy is that it's playing to Milwaukee's natural and historical strengths."
But Austin, the Brookings analyst, said economic revival also depends on doing more to make the region's 10,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and many rivers and inland lakes a draw for tourists and for service companies that want a beautiful setting.
During the first half of the 20th century, the steel plants, paper mills and auto factories that employed millions along the lakes also left behind blight. The Lake Michigan city of Gary, Ind., is riddled with the hulks of abandoned buildings and the Grand Calumet River bottom is caked with a 20-foot-deep layer of gunk including toxic PCBs.
An Obama administration initiative has pumped more than $1 billion into Great Lakes environmental cleanup, and a regional partnership has raised hundreds of millions to beautify Gary's industrial waterfront.
"People will pay more for an office with a water view," Austin said. "But not if it's a cesspool."