Modjeska Theatre is at heart of Mitchell Street revival
Joseph White first moved his business to the Mitchell Street commercial district in 1968, when the neighborhood was a thriving and prominent area of commerce.
Since the 1970s, the South Side neighborhood continued to decline, a victim of urban sprawl, poverty and crime.
White and his business, Excelon, Inc., have remained, along with a handful of other merchants who have endured the down times. They say the designation of the Mitchell Street neighborhood, from Fifth through 13 streets, as an historic district by the City of Milwaukee in recent years, has been a catalyst of rebirth.
Banks are returning with branch offices on Mitchell Street, and new businesses are moving in. New tenants are moving into old buildings, and White says national retailers are scouting the neighborhood.
Mitchell Street is no Water Street. It is no Brady Street. But it is on the rebound, White says.
At the heart of that rebound is the Modjeska Theatre, which has been a focal point in the neighborhood since it was built in 1906.
The Modjeska was purchased by Diane and Stewart Johnson in 1992. The married couple, with strong theatre backgrounds and liberal hearts of compassion for people less fortunate, launched an impressive theatre program for at-risk youth. The program has grown to serve hundreds of youth from dozens of schools.
As they grow older, the Johnsons hope to sell the Modjeska.
White volunteers as president of the Modjeska Theatre Co., a nonprofit that operates the theatre program.
The Modjeska began its most recent youth theatre production, “Annie,” Dec. 6. Its next production will be Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” April 4-13.
White is seeking the support of businesses and the community to renovate the Modjeska. He recently discussed the future of the Modjeska and the Mitchell Street neighborhood with Steve Jagler, executive editor of Small Business Times. The following are excepts from that interview:
SBT: What kind of support have you received from the City of Milwaukee?
White: We get grants from them. That’s useful. We’ve gotten very good support from the mayor (John Norquist) all along. He’s helped us find money, too.
SBT: What’s the long-term plan for the Modjeska?
White: We have not fully defined our strategic plan yet. The theatre gets an historic tax credit of 25 to 30 percent, which we can’t use as a nonprofit. At some point, we have to figure out how to make good use of that credit, which means finding a way to line up with a profit-making organization that has real philanthropic interest in the theatre, and then they can take advantage of the tax credit. That probably could be a business or a bank. It could be some sort of partnership. Ultimately, the Johnsons are going to sell their interests in the theatre.
SBT: How important is this theatre to the neighborhood from a human standpoint of its impact on kids?
White: We average about 60 to 70 kids per production, and we typically have three productions per year. For each of these musicals, we have morning productions, and schools come to those. It’s up to 3,000 young people attending each production.
SBT: You’ve been in this neighborhood since 1968. You’ve seen the decline. Where do things stand now on Mitchell Street?
White: I think they’re a lot better. The fact that we became an historic district has had a major impact. There was great resistance to that, because it’s giving up some of your personal freedom. The merchants didn’t understand the benefits.
The reason we’re having progress on the street now is because of those tax credits. The reason that Gorman Development is taking the Kunzelmann-Esser building and turning it into artist lofts, with some good retail on the first floor and is updating that whole building, is they understand how to get the best bang for the buck, and one of them certainly is the historic tax credit.
SBT: Are people who own the buildings here seeing any appreciation in the value of their properties?
White: I think they’re just beginning to see that. It’s starting.
SBT: So this has at least reversed the decline.
White: Oh yes, the decline is arrested. It’s on the way up. We see the theatre as a major anchor on this end of the street, because there aren’t that many activities that bring people from outside the area to the street. The theatre is bringing people from all over the place to the neighborhood, and gives a better impression of what’s going on on Mitchell Street. I think we’ve hit the nadir, and we’re on the way up.
And now some of the big retail outlets, the nationals, are looking around, looking for space on Mitchell Street.
SBT: Any one in particular?
White: Well, there are several of them. I can’t mention their names, because they’re still in the works. But it’s starting to happen, and you should keep your eye on it. You’ll notice there’s more attention to the storefronts. It’s starting to happen. Once it begins, it progresses.
If we can do what we want to do with the theatre, we can, in effect, create a theatre district, where some of the shops and restaurants in our area are catering to and are affected by what’s happening at the theatre. I think that has a pretty good chance of coming to be.
SBT: You’ve hired an architect for the theatre, right?
White: Engberg Anderson (Design Partnerships) is doing pro bono work now. There are several options in the planning, which includes expanding. It’s not just renovating. It’s expanding, so we can service more young people.
SBT: I understand you’ve hired a new executive director for the nonprofit.
White: Alan Kopischke is his name. He’s just what we needed. He’s businesslike. He’s got lots of ideas. Great energy. He’s the kind of person we needed. And he loves kids, and he loves the theatre. So far, that’s been a good deal.
SBT: What do you foresee as the main obstacles to the rebirth of the theatre and the neighborhood?
White: It’s the availability of capital. It’s always an issue — getting foundations, corporations and individuals to stick money into the theatre program. There are a lot of other uses people have with their money now. When you’ve got a $20 million deficit running with the Milwaukee Art Museum, there are a lot of people that could be giving money to us that can’t do that. That’s the toughest part of it. And we need to partner with other agencies.
SBT: As the neighborhood declined, with poverty and crime, a lot of business people fled this neighborhood for the suburbs. What has kept you here?
White: Well, look around you. I like our space here. We’ve survived. The area has had its tough times. We’ve tried to change that in some ways. This is where it is.
Dec. 6, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee