Gary Grunau makes some noise

Developer takes on his next Milwaukee project: Segregation

Gary Grunau
Gary Grunau

Last updated on September 25th, 2019 at 04:53 pm

Real estate developer Gary Grunau, one of Milwaukee’s most prominent business and civic leaders, has a new look.

Making his way across Schlitz Park on a sunny August day, Grunau is moving slower than normal. But with his well-trimmed beard, hand-woven Panama hat and blazer worn casually over jeans, he looks a bit like “the most interesting man in the world” from the Dos Equis beer commercials.

At the very least, he’s one of the most interesting people in Milwaukee.

Many at his age, 78, would take a step back.

But Grunau, who is fighting brain cancer, is doing just the opposite.

The lifelong Milwaukee resident, who has played a major role in several prominent development projects in the city, including the Hyatt Regency hotel, the Schlitz Park office complex, the convention center and the creation of the Milwaukee RiverWalk, believes it is time to focus on something bigger.

Grunau says he is disturbed by Milwaukee’s status as one of the most segregated communities in the country.

The lack of affordable housing that prevents upward mobility for people living in the city’s poorest zip codes. 

The lack of support for Milwaukee Public Schools.

And what he describes as citywide and nationwide apathy for racial disparity.

“We’re not a shining star – far from it,” Grunau said.

Segregation hurts the city’s economic competitiveness, but not enough is being done about it, he says.

“What’s concerning is no one is screaming about it,” Grunau said. “We just blunder through life. And that lack of inclusion hurts us downtown. It hurts us in education. It hurts us nationally. If a young African-American student graduates and gets an offer in Milwaukee or Atlanta, they’re in Atlanta so damn fast it will make your head spin.”

Grunau’s concern about making the city more inclusive is not new.

The issue was top of mind for retired ManpowerGroup chairman Jeff Joerres a decade ago when he decided to relocate the company’s headquarters from Glendale to Schlitz Park in downtown Milwaukee, Grunau said.

Joerres predicted by 2025, the scarcest resource in this country would be qualified people, Grunau said. The two had many conversations about how a firm’s commitment to diversity is in the best interests of everyone involved.

That stuck with Grunau.

Now, Grunau says it is a crucial time to act, in part because of President Donald Trump’s election and performance in office.

“I got dismayed in the horrible election years of 2015 and 2016, and the lack of politeness that has gotten into our society,” Grunau said. “The eventual winner of our presidency did it on a white resentment basis that he is going to protect whites and move everyone who is not white out of our country or incarcerate them. And that got a lot of votes. He’s running his government that way and this whole attitude of us versus them is just repugnant to me and it’s repugnant to our tenants.”

Schlitz Park as ground zero

As a developer, Grunau is perhaps best known for his work revitalizing the former Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. complex. The brewery was shut down in 1981. Grunau and members of the Sampson family bought the property in 1983, and spent years working to transform it into the Schlitz Park office complex. 

During the economic collapse and recession of 2008 and 2009, the 1.2 million-square-foot office park had significant vacancies. Grunau and Scott Sampson took a step back and thought about what would attract young professionals downtown. They invested $30 million remodeling the public areas, renovating several buildings and adding fitness centers, healthy food options and several enhancements for bicycles.

Schlitz Park Credit: Shelly Tabor

The changes worked. Today, Schlitz Park has less than 50,000 square feet of vacancy, which Grunau anticipates will be filled within the next 60 days by a suburban company that will relocate its headquarters, moving 260 employees downtown.

The 40-acre park currently has 3,500 employees working at 38 businesses in five buildings. Of those companies, 12 are nonprofit organizations.

“They have an agenda, which fits our agenda of education and racial justice,” Grunau said. “It all blends together well.”

Realizing Schlitz Park operates like a small city, Grunau is hoping to begin the conversations about diversity there and then expand them throughout the city.

“Our biggest problem is inclusion and getting beyond us versus them,” Grunau said. “I’m not at all happy with what is happening in this community, but at least we’re going to wake them up because I’m going to start making some noise.”

Earlier this year, Schlitz Park held a diversity fair for tenants, bringing in representatives from nearly a dozen organizations. In June, Schlitz Park held the first of a bimonthly speaker series for tenants.

Upcoming scheduled events are on topics related to understanding Islamic and Muslim culture and Jewish community issues.

Eventually, Grunau will add an ethics center and prayer room to Schlitz Park.

“We have an employee base here that matches the demographics of the city closely,” Grunau said. “We’ve always been an innovator with fitness and the bikes and the greenspace. There’s no reason why we can’t be an innovator with creating a working environment where people want to work.”

Turning no into yes

The desire to create a more inclusive city comes at a point in Grunau’s life when he wants to take on bigger issues.

In addition to the work he is doing at Schlitz Park, Grunau is the board chairman of the Milwaukee Academy of Science, a public charter school in the city’s Avenues West Neighborhood serving more than 1,000 K4 through 12th grade students from across the city. 

Milwaukee’s RiverWalk
Credit: Shelly Tabor

The student population at the school is 98 percent black and 94 percent economically disadvantaged.

But the test scores are good and the school “meets expectations,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Grunau is passionate about his work on the board and is working to help raise money so the high school can double in size.

“The kids are absolute dynamite,” he said.

Grunau is also the vice chairman of the Discovery World board, which is attempting to raise $20 million to $25 million to expand its exhibition space and help subsidize admission for people who can’t afford a ticket.

Grunau’s lifelong knack for being able to make people see the bigger picture is now going to be needed more than ever as he tackles some of the biggest issues of his career.

“I found as I got along in my career, I became very successful in selling bigger projects when I could explain the project and how it affected the city and everyone involved,” he said. “So along the line, we did the convention center, we did the RiverWalk system, but really, it took more than just the ability to build something; you had to convince someone it’s for the good of everyone.”

Longtime friend Bruce Block, a shareholder in Milwaukee-based Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C.’s real estate practice, calls Grunau the “Energizer Bunny on steroids.” 

“He’s like one engine inside of another, and each one just keeps pumping,” Block said. “He’s an engineer by background, so he’s a traditional problem-solver and he has a social conscience. Those two things together get a lot done.”

Block recalled countless meetings he has been in with Grunau at which the answers they heard were “no, no, no.”

“When we left, (Grunau) would say ‘I think we have a crack at it,’” Block said. “He has this innate optimism, coupled with energy and drive. And he doesn’t take no for an answer.”

When asked if Grunau ever succeeded turning the “no” into “yes,” Block laughed and said, “Surprisingly more often than you would think.”

A recent “no” Grunau is still holding out hope for is the Fiserv Inc. corporate headquarters.

Propped up on whiteboards and wooden stands in his conference room at Schiltz Park’s RiverCenter Building are artist renderings of the building Grunau pitched to the Brookfield-based global financial services technology developer.

Schlitz Park was originally being considered as one of four sites the firm was considering, in addition to The Corridor development in Brookfield, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Innovation Campus in Wauwatosa and Reed Street Yards in Milwaukee.

In early August, Fiserv announced it had narrowed its decision to three sites, omitting Schlitz Park.

Grunau’s proposal for Fiserv is a new construction, four-story building located on the Milwaukee River between the ManpowerGroup headquarters and Time Warner Cable’s regional headquarters.

“It isn’t dead until it is dead, and the fat lady has not sung,” Grunau said. “It’s in their hands. If I don’t get Fiserv, I’m going to get something else. It is a signature building. It would be a hell of a building for Foxconn. (Foxconn Technology Group) is going to build an office somewhere.”

Grunau believes Fiserv did not publicly name Schlitz Park as a finalist because he was a few days late securing everything needed for the proposal. He asked Fiserv to reconsider, and as of press time, was waiting to hear back.

The reason Grunau was late is because he was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy.

A humbling experience

On the afternoon of May 23, Grunau met his wife, Joanne MacInnes Grunau, in the garage of their downtown apartment complex so the two could go to the store to replace his laptop.

In the garage, he wasn’t able to articulate what he needed to say to her.

She called the rescue squad.

Within three hours, he had an MRI and was told he had a brain tumor.

Grunau was diagnosed with primary central nervous system lymphoma.

That was a Tuesday. By Friday morning, the tumor was removed.

Grunau then began spending four inpatient days every other week at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin undergoing chemotherapy.

When the 10-week cycle ended, he began radiation treatment twice a day for three weeks, which he is just finishing. That will be followed by oral chemotherapy and then ongoing medical maintenance. 

“I have not been sick, but debilitated – you get hit pretty good,” Grunau said.

Grunau continued to work during his stays in the hospital, setting up a small office each time he was admitted.

“That’s the happiest I saw him,” Joanne said. “In the beginning, I tried to ask him to slow down, but I realize that’s what keeps him going.”

Block said he isn’t surprised his old friend continued to work through his cancer treatment.

“It’s a testament to his fortitude and drive,” Block said. “This is a real physical toll that he’s dealing with, and he just keeps going. We need three or four more guys like him and we could solve a lot of problems.”

Since Grunau was diagnosed, Joanne has taken a leave of absence from her role as board president of Donate Life Wisconsin.

“I think my focus has narrowed,” she said. “It is a lot of medication management, a lot of scheduling, making sure Gary uses his energy wisely and trying to keep him focused on taking care of himself. It has been a big change. But it is good in some ways, to make you stop and think about the way you are spending your time.”

National acclaim

When Grunau returned to Milwaukee from Cornell University with a mechanical engineering degree in 1962, he joined Grunau Co. Inc., a mechanical contracting business started by his grandfather, Paul J. Grunau, in 1920.

In the late 1970s, the company was doing work for the Hyatt Regency hotel construction project in downtown Milwaukee when the original developer had to back out of the project because of financial problems. Grunau stepped in as the developer, creating a new company eventually known as Grunau Project Development Inc. Grunau completed the Hyatt in 1980.

Grucon Group LLC was established as the umbrella company for Grunau Co. and Grunau Project Development. The company owned the Hyatt until selling it in 2007.

Grucon was sold to Grunau’s son, Paul, in 1999. Grunau Project Development was sold to Providence, Rhode Island-based construction and development firm Gilbane Inc. in 2002. Gary Grunau worked as a senior vice president and north central regional manager for Gilbane, running the company’s north central region until 2009.

After leaving Gilbane, Grunau shifted his focus back to Schlitz Park.

Throughout Grunau’s career, he has also played a leading role in numerous civic projects, including the creation of the Wisconsin Center District to build a new convention center downtown. But one of his proudest achievements is the downtown Milwaukee RiverWalk, which stretches six miles from Humboldt Avenue on the city’s Lower East Side through downtown and the Historic Third Ward.

With a $52 million capital investment, including $36 million from the City of Milwaukee and $16 million from the private sector, many people consider the RiverWalk a catalyst for the dozens of restaurants, offices and apartment buildings that have sprung up between the Third Ward and the East Side.

The RiverWalk is now one of 25 finalists for the Urban Land Institute’s prestigious 2017 Global Awards for Excellence. In July, two jurors were in Milwaukee touring the Milwaukee River by boat, guided by Grunau, former Mayor John Norquist, former city planner Peter Park and former Milwaukee comptroller Wally Morics.

“Having gone through all of this gives you a more global outlook,” Grunau said. “Having the jury here, on the river, and bringing back all of these old buddies that helped you 20 years ago… It gives you an appreciation that maybe you didn’t take the time for before.”

Schlitz Park received the Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence for Large Scale Rehabilitation in 1992. The organization established the global excellence awards for significant projects in 2012.

This year’s finalists include three located in Asia, two in Europe, and 20 in North America. A group of winners chosen from the finalists will be announced in October in Los Angeles.

Grunau said the national acclaim the RiverWalk has received is gratifying. And he hopes the project wins for Norquist. 

“He was the guy who had the cojones and said, ‘We are going to rededicate ourselves to the river,’” Grunau said. “This reinforces our desire to do the right thing. We’ve created something really nifty here. And we don’t want to screw it up.”

About 15 years ago, Grunau was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he beat. The diagnosis became public when he was asked about it by television news anchor Mike Gousha.

After that, Grunau began talking to a lot of other men going through similar situations.

This time around, he decided to be more open about his cancer diagnosis, sending out an email to friends and family and telling them to share it with others.

Grunau says he is not afraid of the future, but diagnosis and treatment has been a humbling experience.

“Now everything is on the Epic (electronic medical records) system, so the doctor’s files are right in front of me,” he said. “When I have an MRI of my brain, the doctor looks at it and I look at it. He looks at my spine and points to a part that is deteriorated and I see it. I know more about my body than I thought I ever would.” 

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