Commentary: Gary Grunau was a visionary

Gary Grunau
Gary Grunau

Last updated on November 6th, 2019 at 01:52 pm

With the recent death of Milwaukee developer Gary Grunau, the city’s business community lost an icon and influential civic leader.

But we lost something else, one of Milwaukee’s most visionary individuals. It was that vision that led Grunau and his business partner Scott Sampson to acquire the former Schlitz brewery complex in the early 1980s and convert it into an office complex, which they later redeveloped again into a more modern facility.

Grunau played vital roles in spearheading numerous civic projects including the city’s RiverWalk, the downtown convention center and Discovery World on the lakefront.

For those and other career achievements, Grunau received the BRAVO! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award from BizTimes Media in 2014. Accepting the award at the annual BizExpo conference, Grunau made several bold statements, plus some predictions that have since been realized. It’s amazing to listen to that speech again. Here are a few highlights:

“Never ever be satisfied with the status quo. Never ever quit.”

“When there is a catalytic event out there, we’ve got to seize the opportunity, and we’ve got to make it happen.”

Grunau said a massive expansion of the then-nascent Bublr bike share system was in the works. “This is a very important thing that changes the viewpoint of people of the city and also the transportation systems.”

Bublr now has 88 stations and 700 bikes in Milwaukee and a few suburbs. In addition, Bird, Lime and Spin have each deployed 350 scooters in Milwaukee.

“Let’s break the deadlock on transportation…every major city we compete with has a transportation system that works, and a modern one…”

Here Grunau was talking about the downtown streetcar. Love it or hate it, the system began operating last year. Some thought it would never happen.

“We need to solve the Grand Avenue…get it repositioned and let it become an asset again.”

The former downtown mall is now being converted into office space, apartments and a food hall. Engineering firm GRAEF will move its headquarters there.

“I personally think (a new arena) is going to happen…I think we have wonderful owners (of the Bucks)…”

Of course, Fiserv Forum was built. Its first year was a huge success as the Bucks, led by NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, almost reached the NBA Finals.

While he was battling brain cancer Grunau spoke at length to BizTimes Milwaukee about his concerns about segregation and racial disparity in Milwaukee and how much that hurts the city’s economic competitiveness. Just days after Grunau’s death, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce announced a new initiative aimed at increasing racial diversity in the management and workforce of area businesses.

Grunau was a visionary and key leader on some of the city’s biggest issues, right to the very end of his life. We should all try to embrace his visionary approach in trying to solve Milwaukee’s toughest problems.

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.