Before freeways and suburban shopping malls, and way before online retail, downtown Milwaukee – and the downtowns of other cities like it in America – had sidewalks crowded with pedestrians and a large array of shopping options.
T.A. Chapman operated a department store on Wisconsin Avenue downtown from the late 1800s until it closed in 1981.
Gimbels opened a department store on Wisconsin Avenue in 1887. In the 1980s, it was acquired by Marshall Field’s. That store closed in 1997.
Boston Store also had a department store on Wisconsin Avenue, from 1897 until 2018 when its parent company, The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., went out of business.
Grand Avenue Mall, which opened in 1982 with Gimbels and Boston Store serving as its anchor stores on the east and west ends of the mall, started strong but later declined severely and is now being redeveloped into The Avenue, which has a food hall, office space and apartments, but far less retail space than the mall had.
Downtown Milwaukee’s retail heyday is long gone. But perhaps it’s on the verge of an upswing.
From 2010 to 2020, downtown Milwaukee and some of its surrounding neighborhoods were among the fastest growing places in the state. The greater downtown area, including the Lower East Side, Historic Third Ward and northern portion of Walker’s Point, had a population of 37,563 in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Downtown Milwaukee’s population has grown as its retail offerings have waned and consumers have increasingly shifted toward online shopping. But at some point, the population growth of the area should attract more stores.
That’s why plans by Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s Corp. to open a store in the former Boston Store space downtown are so interesting. With its headquarters and most of its stores in the suburbs, Kohl’s has long resisted placing a store in downtown Milwaukee.
The company’s move to finally open a store there is an intriguing shift. Under pressure from some investors to improve its performance, Kohl’s leadership recently considered a sale of the company but decided against it, opting instead to purse their turnaround strategy. That strategy includes plans for about 100 small-format stores at about half the size of a typical 80,000-square-foot Kohl’s store.
The idea behind the smaller stores is to use them to enter markets, like downtown Milwaukee, that the company wasn’t able to serve with its larger stores.
This move is a huge vote of confidence for downtown Milwaukee by Kohl’s.
It will be very interesting to see how this store performs. If it does well, it could be a turning point for downtown Milwaukee retail and more stores might follow suit and open locations there.
But if downtown residents don’t patronize their neighborhood Kohl’s store, it won’t survive and other retailers won’t be interested in coming. n
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