Reviving Bronzeville: Spurring investment, restoring pride

By Sean Ryan  – Reporter, Milwaukee Business Journal

May 4, 2018, 9:40am CDT Updated May 5, 2018, 8:14am

North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and West North Avenue in the city of Milwaukee are racking up a series of wins attracting businesses and projects, creating momentum to help the prominent Bronzeville neighborhood recover its former prosperity.

It’s been a long time coming. You can read more about it in the cover story in today’s Milwaukee Business Journal and by clicking on the headline below.

The city of Milwaukee hired Deshea Agee in May 2007 as the Bronzeville project manager. He held community meetings in the America’s Black Holocaust Museum to draw up goals and redevelopment concepts for the area north of downtown Milwaukee along North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and West North Avenue. It was formerly a business and cultural hub for African-Americans in Milwaukee.

Those community meetings spawned key concepts, like the importance of the arts to Bronzeville’s future. Now in the private sector as executive director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District, Agee is seeing those concepts starting to become real.

Artists are giving the city input on ways to capitalize on a future extension of the downtown Milwaukee streetcar. The Art Walk event launched last year, and will return on Aug. 11 this year, attracting more people to check out the neighborhood while also helping artists make a living selling their work, Agee said.

“As we look at the 21st century Bronzeville, we wanted to make sure it still resembled what the historic Bronzeville was centered on, and it wasn’t just a fad,” Agee said. “It was the artists who helped make the creative energy and that sense of place.”

Agee is among the players who are helping to revive the neighborhoods along King Drive and North Avenue north of downtown. We profile several of them in our May 4 edition. Those include Melissa Goins, developer who led the Garfield School rehab and Griot apartments; Demian Harris, who is launching a career in construction after working on Garfield School; and Mike Coakley, who hopes to rehab CH Coakley’s large King Drive building into offices and apartments.

We also checked in with Virgil Cameron, son of America’s Black Holocaust Museum founder James Cameron, who plans to reopen the museum this fall in the first floor of Goins’ Griot project.

See the attached slideshow for pictures of the Garfield School and Griot projects, and of those stakeholders in Bronzeville.

The neighborhood took a big hit during the recession about 10 years ago, but now is seeing many new businesses come in to refill dark storefronts. The market around 2008 bombed and banks pulled back just as Bronzeville’s plans were being formed, Agee said.

“Now with the market being a lot more healthy and real estate development being, from a bank perspective, a much better investment than in 2008, there is certainly more funding available,” Agee said.

The current revival has brought Pete’s Fruit Market and Community Warehouse to open new locations on North Avenue. On that same block this summer, a former Footlocker Store will become a space for pop-up stores to open shop for short periods. Newer businesses on King Drive include Gee’s Clippers Barber and Beauty Salon and the Mi Casa Su Cafe. In the pipeline are plans for a restaurant by the owners of Glorious Malone’s Fine Sausage, a Caribbean restaurant and a podiatry clinic.

“Lenders are more confident,” Agee said. “They are seeing more businesses not only interested in the area, but finding equity for projects. That is helping lenders feel even more comfortable. They are also seeing people come up with better business plans and better business models.”

Agee and other community development groups have helped generate that activity. Since coming to the King Drive BID in 2016, Agee has been all over the place. He connects people who want to start businesses, such as the owners of Rise and Grind Cafe who opened shop earlier this year, with owners of buildings. He nudges negotiations along. Agee’s past experience working with grants while with the city, and as a realtor, has helped make deals happen.

“We’re going to get to our zero vacancy, zero vacant land and zero vacant buildings because it is entrepreneurs, aligned with policy, aligned with a boots on the ground effort by myself and others that are helping to make it all come together,” Agee said.