Former BMO Harris branch in Sherman Park to become entrepreneurial hub

Renovated building will house locally-owned businesses

The exterior of the temporary BMO Harris Bank branch in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood.

Last updated on May 15th, 2019 at 04:57 pm

The BMO Harris Bank building that was burned during the unrest in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood last summer will be reborn as a hub for local entrepreneurs.

Juli Kaufmann, president of Milwaukee-based Fix Development LLC, and JoAnne Johnson-Sabir, co-owner of The Juice Kitchen, plan to transform the building at 3536 W. Fond du Lac Ave., a longtime fixture in the neighborhood, into a space that will house as many as a dozen locally-owned businesses, while also offering entrepreneur mentorship.

“It will be a hub for entrepreneurship and wellness services,” Johnson-Sabir said. “The concept is to provide a community-owned model that allows social returns in what is a stronghold in a community of color … So we’ll have a hub that will feature makeup artists, yogis, jiu jitsu, a plethora of restaurant options, all with entrepreneurs who are looking for a home and support.”

The exterior of the temporary BMO Harris Bank branch in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.

Kaufmann, who focuses on urban development projects, said the idea emerged from ongoing conversations with residents of Sherman Park in the 10 months since the police shooting of 23-year-old suspect Sylville K. Smith and the unrest that followed.

“When that happened last year, there was really an outpouring of community resilience and community hope that we’re trying to channel through the project,” Kaufmann said. “So we’ve spent a lot of time meeting with the community …. trying to better understand what would be responsive to the desires, hopes and dreams of the Sherman Park community and beyond.”

As co-developers, Kaufmann and Johnson-Sabir plan to get the project off the ground with the ultimate goal of bringing on community members as co-owners.

Kaufmann and Johnson-Sabir said the project , which is expected to cost $2.5 million, will also require philanthropic support.

On Thursday, BMO Harris held a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the start of construction of a new branch at 3637 W. Fond du Lac Ave., across the street from the building that sustained serious fire damage in August. A temporary bank is currently operating in a space adjacent to that branch.

Kaufamnn and Johnson-Sabir expect construction on the building to begin once the new branch opens, which is slated for the fall.

“It’s devastated on the inside, but it has such a strong anchor legacy in the community of being a driver of the economy,” Kaufmann said. “And now that BMO Harris has decided to build across the street with a new bank, that old building is going to be reborn as an economic engine in a new way.”

Kaufmann envisions the space looking like a hall of small businesses “thriving with life and activities.”

“It will be completely redeveloped,” she said. “The exterior will look fairly similar. And we’re envisioning a broader outside community space that will be part of the plan. But the inside will look nothing like a bank.”

Kaufmann said she expects the new business hub to open in the spring of 2018. In the meantime, she said, they are gathering more input from the community, recruiting tenants and raising funds.

Johnson-Sabir said the project is aimed at addressing barriers that prevent aspiring minority entrepreneurs from starting their own businesses.

“It brings people into the economy,” she said. “It provides access to operating capital. It provides all of those mechanisms that entrepreneurs of color may not have been afforded … It’s creating a model that provides access.”

Johnson-Sabir envisions the business hub concept spreading throughout the city.

“The hope is that, once we develop this thriving hub, it becomes a model for replication across all of our main streets in Milwaukee,” she said.

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