Ian Abston: ‘Getting new things done in Milwaukee is really hard’│Ep. 32

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Light the Hoan co-founder Ian Abston said there were probably a dozen times in the last four years he wanted to give up on the dream of bringing LED lights to Milwaukee’s iconic bridge.

“Getting new things done in Milwaukee is really hard,” said Abston on the latest BizTimes MKE Podcast with Beth Ridley of The Brimful Life.

The idea of illuminating the Hoan Bridge is to help the city attract and retain talent and create a symbol of bringing Milwaukeeans together. Abston said the idea came from seeing a similar project on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. He also recalled seeing the non-lit Hoan representing the city on a Milwaukee Bucks broadcast.

“Our very last shot that we sent to the rest of the world was kind of like armpit of the city,” he said.

Light the Hoan is seeking to crowdfund $1.5 million to cover part of the up to $5.5 million in total costs. Abston acknowledged that he’s heard from some who think lighting a bridge is a dumb idea or that the money would be better spent on solving homelessness or improving education.

“I can’t argue with those things, but a great city is going to be able to juggle two things at one time,” he said.

But after four years trying to raise enough money, Abston said he has learned how hard it is to get things done in Milwaukee, especially something different.

“Milwaukee doesn’t do sexy, the Art Museum is sexy, but we haven’t done a sexy project in 20 years and that took all of Milwaukee’s leaders and forefathers to put that together,” he said.

Abston said it is also hard to raise money from Milwaukeeans without asking “alongside someone who they know and trust.”

“Though I think I might be doing good things in the community and deserve a meeting or something like that, people will take a meeting for you, but then you get a head pat and a very small check, if anything,” he said. “You need somebody else who is reputable in the community to say ‘No, these people are legit, this is a great project and I’m going to put my name on this pedestal with these guys.’ That’s what you need to get things done in Milwaukee and that’s hard.”

Abston acknowledged the process has made him more cynical about the city, but also said he hopes he will be smart enough as he gets older to reach back to younger generations.

“The future of this town is going to be the next entrepreneur with the big idea building the next Harley-Davidson, because we can no longer rely on Harley-Davidson or MillerCoors anymore and those were some of the bedrocks of this community and they’re just not what they once were,” he said.

Abston did say that getting things done in the city requires working across generations, so young people need to listen to older generations and the older generations need to be open to mentoring going both ways

“Milwaukee, to date, I can’t say is the best city for supporting risk takers and we have to turn that around,” he said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.