“What happens next, what we do now, that is what will define us.”
I said those words in an article published recently in Belt Magazine, written by South Milwaukee freelance writer Lisa Holewa. Check it out here.
It was in relation to redevelopment of the Caterpillar campus, but it could just as easily been about the redevelopment of South Milwaukee as a whole.
My message: We are at a crossroads, and while we certainly face our share of challenges, I remain as excited as ever about our potential as a city, and committed to doing all we can to shape our promising future.
I share more about my philosophy below. But first, some news …
As you may have read, Caterpillar has informed us they plan to vacate their manufacturing building immediately south of Rawson Avenue and shift all production and office staff north of the street by year end. You will recall they had initially said they would keep manufacturing south and north of Rawson, while vacating the rest of the buildings south of the street.
While the continued shrinking of Cat’s footprint in South Milwaukee is incredibly disappointing – a tragedy, really – this is not a surprise, especially as it became clear that all of the buildings south of Rawson were being marketed to a potential new buyer, as a whole. The site remains for sale, and that challenge and opportunity is well summarized in the Belt Magazine article.
There was briefly an accepted offer on the property in November, but that fell through. Still, we are told interest in the site has been strong.
And the city continues to take proactive steps to shape the future of that campus, from making the city a candidate in the upcoming effort to replace the downtown Milwaukee state office building to actively promoting the opportunity to potential developers by investing in marketing and planning the site. We have worked hard to connect potential users of the campus to the broker/owner and will continue to do so.
We have momentum.
I start with this general statement: There is a lot happening behind the scenes, and that’s a really good thing. It’s been a long time since we have seen so much interest in South Milwaukee from potential developers and business owners, new and existing. Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on our staff to make sure no balls are dropped, and that is one reason why we are so excited to have Stephanie Hacker as our new economic development director. She started in November and is helping us navigate this, already adding real value to the city.
Look for more details soon on projects she and the rest of our team have been working on around strategic land acquisition downtown, a significant private grant that will help in our economic development efforts, and adjustments to two of our tax incremental financing districts. We are also restarting our work around city branding in early 2018, and will be reviewing proposals later this month for downtown streetscaping enhancements.
This is important groundwork that will pay dividends over time.
We must win every day, too. And in South Milwaukee, it starts with doing all we can to drive sustainable, small business. Our goal: Attract new businesses while ensuring we are doing all we can to help our existing ones grow. We’re doing it.
In the past 18 months, we’ve seen three highly regarded new restaurants (Taco Stop MKE, Scrappy’s BBQ and Island Jam) open, as well as destination businesses places like Mari’s Flowers, THE SHOP, C3 Designs and JB’s Tee Shirt Factory, among others.
There are two exciting new construction projects underway, too.
Dr. Steven Scheuing tells me that work on his new building at 11th and College is on schedule, and South Shore Family Chiropractic and South Milwaukee Family Dental are targeting late February openings. Work is also progressing nicely at MyStorageHome, the new self-storage business on Columbia Avenue. Owner Chris Hitler tells me they are also getting close to opening. More details to come on both soon.
And there continues to be progress downtown.
The South Milwaukee Downtown Market continues to rock, as it celebrates its 10th season in 2018. I’m so excited to see it grow into a community institution that is uniquely South Milwaukee, backed by a dedicated group of volunteers.
Across the street, the Growing South Milwaukee community garden is close to becoming reality. The group has met its fundraising goal … next step, moving dirt. Learn more on their Facebook page, and book a plot on the site south of historic train depot.
And let’s head from west to east on Milwaukee Avenue …
- Albright Art Therapy recently opened at 1310 Milwaukee Ave. Welcome to South Milwaukee!
- Schroeter’s Gluten Free Bake Shop is moving ahead with their expansion into the building at 1234 Milwaukee Ave., as I wrote about last fall. Work continues next door on the ice cream shop, and, down the block, China Chef’s rehabbed building (with support from a Downtown Revitalization Grant) looks great. Green Flag Racing, 1218 Milwaukee Ave., has also added new windows to their building.
- Wild Flour Bakery is growing, as it plans to move its bread production to its South Milwaukee bakery, 1205 Milwaukee Ave., later this year.
- Milwaukee Sausage Company, a farmers’ market vendor, is opening a retail shop at 1200 Milwaukee Ave., replacing Fancy Paws Grooming Salon. We’re working with Donna Mae to help find her a new home in town.
- Jen’s Sweet Treats has closed its location at 907 Milwaukee Ave., but Serendipitous Designs & Gifts has moved into the space, allowing Jamie to grow her really cool consignment store from her current location across street. It looks great inside.
- And work is underway to convert the former Home State Bank at 921 Milwaukee Ave. into a live music venue; you can follow progress The Overdraft Note on Facebook.
So, lots going on. Of course, there are challenges — individual store closings like Subway at Marquette Plaza and Boost Mobile downtown, and these …
- The Vetter Denk mixed use proposal for 11th and Madison Avenues is dead. The extension on the planning option expired in December, and no effort was made to renew it. The property is back for sale, and we move on, as disappointing as it is. In the end, the financials didn’t work, both for the developers and the city. My promise as mayor: No matter how exciting a potential development is, we will always invest taxpayer dollars wisely and make sure that any risk we take is reasonable.
- The former Johnson Health Tech property is also vacant, and for sale or lease, although there has been good interest in parts of that property as well.
- And the former AMF site recently went up for auction, after the Plan Commission did not show support for a self-storage concept last fall. It remains a strong “opportunity area” for the city, according to our 2016 comprehensive plan.
As we work through all of these changes, I give you this commitment as mayor: Economic redevelopment of South Milwaukee will always be my top priority.
That said, it takes time. Lots of time. And it requires lots of patience.
I posted a while back it might take 10-20 years to redevelop this city, especially downtown. I stand by that comment. I say this because that is the experience of most every city everywhere. We are no different. Look around Milwaukee – Bay View, Third Ward, Fifth Ward – and look around the area and state – including areas like Kenosha, Beloit, Sheboygan and countless others. This work takes time, and it never really ends.
The good news: We’ve started, and we’ve accelerated that timeline. We’re delivering wins now, and, more importantly, taking action now to help deliver the wins of five, 10 and, yes, 20 years from now.
Progress is often measured and incremental. Often, as is the case in South Milwaukee, we take two steps forward and one step back when it comes to economic development. That’s OK, as long as progress is real. And it’s real.
Also, owners matter. It took me a while to figure this out, but maybe the biggest key to redeveloping your city is who owns property. For this to work, you need owners who are both able and willing to invest in their properties.
The good news? We have more and more of these across the city. The bad news? We still have too many disinterested owners. One job we have is to try and match the right property with the right owner, and provide a climate for reinvestment. That includes everything from removing unnecessary barriers in the approval process to offering incentives for fixing up dilapidated buildings, in addition to enforcing property maintenance standards. We are doing all of that.
People also matter. Economic development requires having the right people in place at City Hall to attract and retain these businesses, making the process as smooth as possible for an existing business looking to grow or a new one looking to come to South Milwaukee. We have that team fully in place, led by City Administrator Tami Mayzik, our economic development director, engineer, inspector and many others on our team.
Which leads me to my last point: We will do this one building, one property at a time. That is why it takes so long to get this right. You have wins and losses, sometimes on the same day, when it comes to particular developments, but as long as you are putting more in the “W” column vs. the “L” column, you will win in the end.
My job is to keep us focused on the long game, while working to deliver the wins today that we’ll need to be successful for that long term.
I close with more from the Belt Magazine article – hope for the future. In it, I said, and say often: “There are dozens of success stories, many within a 45-minute drive of us. Others have done it. We can do it, too. Historic decisions are being made right now.”
Bring it on.