Gary Grunau remembered as community champion

Leaves behind a significant legacy in Milwaukee

Gary Grunau speaks at the 2014 BizExpo, upon receiving the BRAVO! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award.
Gary Grunau speaks at the 2014 BizExpo, upon receiving the BRAVO! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award.

Last updated on September 30th, 2019 at 10:42 am

Gary Grunau was a builder — not just in the brick-and-mortar sense, but also of the entire community.

The prominent developer and civic leader died Wednesday at age 80. Those who knew him frequently talked of Grunau’s lasting impact on the city of Milwaukee, carrying his legacy long after he’s been gone.

“I feel like we kind of lost a hero today,” said Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a private-sector civic group that aims to contribute to the cultural and economic base of metro Milwaukee.

Likewise, a number of city officials highlighted Grunau’s importance to the community.

“There are very few private citizens that can say they’ve had an impact on a major American city that Gary Grunau had on Milwaukee,” said Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development.

Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents downtown Milwaukee, said in a statement, “It is difficult to travel even a few blocks through downtown without seeing an important Milwaukee building or space that wasn’t touched in some way by (Grunau).”

Mayor Tom Barrett said in a statement that Grunau “brought his charm and love to the city — and I think that’s what made him such a transformative figure.”

Of course, Grunau, who had been featured three times in BizTimes magazine cover stories over the years, had a number of notable accomplishments in real estate development. But he is also known widely for his efforts to better the community as a whole.

“He was just a force for getting things done,” said Marsha Sehler, a member of the board of directors for the Milwaukee Riverwalk District. “And nothing would get in the way of what he thought would have value, and he pursued it with great strength and wisdom.”

Taylor said Grunau was involved in many committees within the Greater Milwaukee Committee. She worked closely with him on the board of Spirit of Milwaukee. Taylor said that he was always willing to get behind unusual ideas, providing them with $5,000 grants to see what might come of them.

“Gary was always willing to take a chance to see if something would work out,” she said.

He was also a leader for the Riverwalk. Sehler said Grunau saw value in creating an area along the Milwaukee River where people could come to and enjoy the river.

She said things started out with a group of about 15 people, who met monthly to discuss ways to draw more interest to the Riverwalk to make it a greater asset.

“It turned out to be a huge generator for development along the river,” she said.

Beyond the Riverwalk itself, Grunau had a hand in other initiatives aimed at further drawing people to the river. Sehler noted he helped organize River Splash, which featured live music and beer along the river. She added he was also instrumental in the creation of the annual rowing competition on the river, called The Milwaukee Challenge.

Grunau was also a longtime member of the Alverno College Board of Trustees. Sehler said it was because of him that she met former Alverno College president Sister Joel Read, and eventually decided to become a board member herself.

“I would say that was one of the great gifts Gary gave me, the introduction to Alverno College,” she said.

Beth Weirick, chief executive officer of Milwaukee Downtown business improvement district, noted Grunau was a member of the BID since its inception 23 years ago.

“Gary led with passion and perseverance,” she said in an email. “Projects moved forward. Gary inspired and mentored others to excel. He challenged all that he knew to step it up and to reach for the stars.”

Perhaps most notable among the real estate projects Grunau had a hand in is the Schlitz Park complex in downtown Milwaukee. Grunau, along with members of the Sampson family, bought the former Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. complex in 1983 and transformed it into an office campus.

“Schlitz Park in many respects led the adaptive reuse movement,” Marcoux said.

Nearly three decades later, Grunau and co-developer Scott Sampson realized Schlitz Park needed an upgrade. Thinking about young professionals living downtown and what they wanted out of a work environment, they invested $30 million to modernize the campus. That undertaking was detailed in a 2012 BizTimes magazine cover story.

Schlitz Park reached 100% occupancy last year, and was sold earlier this year for more than $101 million to a joint venture consisting of San Francisco and Fort Worth, Texas-based TPG Real Estate and Detroit-based Crestlight Capital.

Other public and private projects Grunau was involved in either as a private developer or as a civic leader include the Hyatt Regency hotel downtown, the Wisconsin Center, Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin, ManpowerGroup’s global headquarters and the former Time Warner Building.

However, there are others that don’t catch as much attention but still had their significance, such as the redevelopment of the former Curley’s Tavern on the southeast corner of West Vine Street and North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Taylor said that back in the 1990s, when she was still with YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, she worked with Grunau on that project.

According to building permit records from that time, the project included 4,000 square feet of first-floor commercial space and 23 residential units on the second and third floors. Taylor said the project aimed to provide affordable living options for area residents.

Grunau agreed to give YWCA a fixed price for the construction work. He stood by that, even when the project faced complications — such as when the back wall fell off the building, recalled Taylor.

“It wasn’t a business deal to him, it was a work in passion,” she said.

Paul Upchurch, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee, said in a statement that Grunau was a “generous man who changed Milwaukee for a generation.”

“From the Wisconsin Center to Schlitz Park to the RiverWalk, his vision and leadership made Milwaukee a better city,” Upchurch said. “His impact can be seen and felt every day. He will be missed.”

Grunau was the recipient of the 2014 BizTimes Bravo! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition for his real estate developments and civic involvement.

During his acceptance speech, he said the community needed to focus on projects that “caused catalytic events to happen.”

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

Specifically, he called for a robust bike-sharing program, the construction of the streetcar system, redeveloping the Grand Avenue mall downtown and lastly — what he called the “major thing” — the construction of a new downtown arena and reinvestment into other cultural assets such as the convention center, Milwaukee County Zoo and Milwaukee Public Museum.

Many of those ideas have come to fruition, with notable success. Bublr Bikes is in full swing, and continues to expand. The Grand Avenue is being redeveloped into The Avenue, a mixed-use development that includes offices, a food hall and apartments. And the proposed expansion of the Wisconsin Center is gaining traction. The streetcar’s initial downtown loop has been in operation for nearly a year.

But Grunau, known for not ever resting on his laurels, wanted even more movement. After being diagnosed with brain cancer about two years ago, he looked to tackle segregation in Milwaukee.

He discussed the issue and his plans in a 2017 BizTimes cover story.

Visitation is scheduled for Sunday and Monday, with a memorial mass also planned for Monday. The family requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Gary P. Grunau “Good for Milwaukee” Fund at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Through a spokesperson, the family said the new fund will support the initiatives and causes that Grunau spent his life championing. Specific criteria have not yet been established, but the fund will likely support local programs and initiatives focused on diversity, inclusion, access and education.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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