Kenosha picks up the pieces

La Estrella Supermarket owner Abel Alejo and Uptown Restaurant owner Yolanda Hernandez owned their businesses for nearly six years before the civil unrest left most of their block in a pile of rubble. Here, Alejo and Hernandez stand inside the middle of the building where their businesses are located on the 6000 block of 22nd Avenue.
La Estrella Supermarket owner Abel Alejo and Uptown Restaurant owner Yolanda Hernandez owned their businesses for nearly six years before the civil unrest left most of their block in a pile of rubble. Here, Alejo and Hernandez stand inside the middle of the building where their businesses are located on the 6000 block of 22nd Avenue. Credit: Andrew Feller

Last updated on March 2nd, 2021 at 10:06 am

During the second night of the August civil unrest in Kenosha, Uptown Restaurant owner Yolanda Hernandez arrived home around 8 p.m. Like other business owners in Kenosha, Hernandez and La Estrella Supermarket owner Abel Alejo spent much of the day boarding up their windows in anticipation of violent protests.

“Here and there I was watching Facebook Live, but then my daughter came home, and she started looking at it more,” Hernandez said. “I told her, ‘I don’t want to look at it,’ and she said, ‘Mom, you have to look at this.’”

The live feed revealed that several buildings on 60th Street had caught fire, two blocks away from La Estrella Supermarket and Hernandez’s restaurant on 22nd Avenue. From the perspective of another live video, Hernandez could see that protestors were now headed towards her business.

Equipped with a fire extinguisher, Hernandez drove to Uptown Restaurant and on the way called Alejo, asking him to meet her on 22nd Avenue.

“By the time I got here, there was fires in the front and some in the back,” Alejo said. “The fire was only affecting a couple of businesses, but it spread and eventually, well, you know the rest.”

As Hernandez and Alejo looked on, it was clear they were too late. But their timing didn’t matter; had they arrived minutes earlier, fire extinguishers were no match for the inferno burning their businesses. Both businesses were so irreparably damaged that neither Hernandez nor Alejo were allowed to enter once the fires had been extinguished.

“You know you’re working here, and this is your way of living,” Hernandez said. “These are small businesses, family-owned. That’s why my desperate thoughts were to bring fire extinguishers.”

Walking through downtown Kenosha and the Uptown neighborhood weeks later, it’s evident the community had suffered – spider-cracked windows, charred I-beams, piles of rubble and completely leveled buildings. It looks like the set of an action film, but this was no movie, and the people impacted by the rioting were not actors.

It is estimated that at least 40 businesses were damaged while another 20 buildings, including publicly owned facilities, were burned to the ground as a result of the late August unrest.

“We have a list of about 70 businesses that have shown that they have been physically affected by the events of that week,” said Heather Wessling Grosz, Kenosha Area Business Alliance vice president. “It’s still hard to tell, but it’s anywhere between $10 (million) and $20 million of actual damage. And then replacement value is hard to say too, but probably three to four times that number.”

The people of Kenosha were and are hurting, but across the city, the facade of buildings and boarded up windows are spray-painted with messages of unity, support and a resolve to rewrite the narrative of a community shrouded by the events that drew national and international attention.

The Kenosha protests followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23. The protests escalated into violence. In addition to the rioting and burning of buildings, a 17-year-old counter-protester shot three people, two fatally, and now faces several charges including first-degree murder.

The police shooting in Kenosha and the protests and unrest that followed were another in a series of similar events across the United States this year sparked by violent confrontations between police and African American suspects, including Blake. At the summer’s end, Kenosha became ground zero of the broader movement for racial justice in the country and the center of political division after both President Donald Trump and Joe Biden visited the community just days after the protests.

Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian says he understands why Trump and Biden visited Kenosha, but the city was grieving and the timing wasn’t appropriate. When both Trump and Biden arrived, Antaramian stayed home. It just wouldn’t have been right to be there, he said.

“We had just gone through some major unrest and rioting in the city,” Antaramian said. “Things had just started to quiet down, and I didn’t want politics to be the focal point of what goes on. All of a sudden, I have more people coming into town from the outside. Because a great deal of our problems came from out of town.”

Now, while the city is on the mend, Antaramian admits that Kenosha still has much to address, including the widespread destruction, racial division and dozens of displaced business owners.

“I think a lot of (business owners) are still in limbo,” Antaramian said. “I think a lot of them don’t know for sure what the next thing is going to be, and uncertainty is always one of the most difficult things for small businesses. When it is your livelihood, you look at things differently from another’s perspective of saying, ‘well, long-term it will be great.’ Well, long-term, you may not be able to hang on for the long-term.”

Still, the mayor expects Kenosha to grow, prosper and come out of this strong “because that is Kenosha,” he said.

“But none of these things happen fast and we need to deal with the issues that are out there right now,” Antaramian said. “We need to make sure that, number one, people feel that they are being listened to and we also need to make sure the community feels safe. At that point in time, I think you’ll see things moving forward. But we have work to do.”

Local nonprofits like Downtown Kenosha Inc. and 1HOPE have mobilized to provide both businesses and community members with supplies and financial support. The Kenosha Area Business Alliance is also slated to deploy $4 million in zero interest microloans using Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. funding with up to $50,000 available to each business impacted by looting, fires and the destruction wrought by protestors.

A portion of the WEDC-backed loans could become grants for business owners, but KABA has yet to finalize those details, said Wessling Grosz.

In addition to grants provided by local organizations, Wessling Grosz said the community will receive approximately $4 million in CARES Act funding through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, but those funds would be earmarked for businesses impacted by COVID-19, not by the civil unrest.

Kenosha has also applied for disaster relief funding through the U.S. Small Business Administration, but it’s unclear whether the community will be eligible for the program and the amount of federal funds that would be made available.

Alejo and Hernandez have been encouraged by the community support, but the two business owners are still faced with a major problem – their sole source of income evaporated overnight.

Local, state and federal government leaders say funding is on the way, but it has been more than two months since the protests and no one has established a clear timeline for when business owners will receive funding, Alejo said.

While both Uptown Restaurant and La Estrella Supermarket are insured, they don’t have the type of coverage that offsets the aftermath of large-scale protests. Like many damaged small businesses in Uptown, Alejo and Hernandez were underinsured, Alejo said.

“For people like us, that was our only income,” Hernandez said. “We need to do something soon and fast because we cannot even apply for unemployment because we were business owners. We’re on our own right now.”

Nearly six years ago, Hernandez and Alejo opened their businesses in Uptown. Before then, Alejo owned a flooring business in Jacksonville, Florida and Hernandez owned an ice cream shop just a few storefronts down from Uptown Restaurant.

“It’s frustrating because when you start a business, you don’t start making money right away; it’s a process,” Alejo said. “I know we were losing money probably the first three or four years or so. We were just starting to make a little money when this happened. So, it is devastating. It really is.”

In the time since Alejo and Hernandez opened their businesses, police and government had worked to clean up Uptown both in terms of crime and aesthetics, and their efforts showed, Alejo said.

Still, Uptown, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Kenosha, is hamstrung by poverty and homelessness. When it bore the brunt of the violent and destructive protests, the impact to the neighborhood was two-fold.

“A lot of people don’t even have cars, so they walk here and there to get stuff,” Hernandez said. “There’s not a lot of money in the neighborhood and now they don’t have any services.”

Just months before Blake was shot, 22nd Avenue was filled with protestors following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minnesota police officer. Uptown Restaurant and La Estrella Supermarket were open and so were their doors because those protests were peaceful, Hernandez said.

What made the August event different? Of course, Blake was from Kenosha, so the community was more charged by what protesters felt was an unjustified shooting.

Alejo says a lot of the people protesting in August came from out of town, which he thinks led to the destructive actions. 

“There were a lot of cars with license plates from Illinois and a lot of people came from up north I think, from here in Wisconsin,” Alejo said. “But those were not familiar faces, and we know a lot of the people here.”

Much like other businesses in the area, La Estrella Supermarket and Uptown Restaurant were Uptown staples, so Hernandez and Alejo were in tune with the neighborhood. This is part of the reason they wish to return to Uptown, but they are not sure if or when that will be possible.

The city has plans to redevelop the west side of the block on 22nd Avenue between 61st and 63rd streets, but the project could take at least a year. The redevelopment of the block will be led by Gorman & Company, a developer who renovated the historic Heritage House Inn into what is now the Stella Hotel & Ballroom at 5706 Eighth Ave.

The 22nd Avenue redevelopment plans consist of first floor commercial and second floor residential space, Antaramian said, adding that previous tenants will be asked first to return once the development is finished.

Gorman will apply for new market tax credits with the idea of making rent for both commercial and residential units affordable. The goal is to rebuild in a way that allows business owners to return in a financially viable environment, Antaramian said.

Over the past several decades, Kenosha County has seen a lot of development along the I-94 corridor and in its business parks. But areas like Uptown have not seen much new development.

Wessling Grosz acknowledged that economic development in the county has been uneven, but it is largely due to land availability, a changing economy, and the fact that commercial properties in the Uptown neighborhood are largely occupied, she said.

“Most of the lots besides the (massive former) Chrysler (plant) site are small infill lots, they’re not big empty fields to build a business park or like downtown where you’ve got the lakefront,” Wessling Grosz said of Uptown.  “… As the economy changed, it reflects a period of divestment and it’s not just KABA, Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce or the city, it was a change in the economy.”

Although KABA’s mission has evolved over the years, at its core, the organization focuses on spurring economic growth and development as well as new employment opportunities throughout Kenosha County. With Kenosha’s older neighborhoods being mostly residential, the organization has not had a great focus on this part of the city, Wessling Grosz added.

“We do think that neighborhood development is important, but we didn’t really have tools in our toolbox to start focusing in on what can we do in the Uptown district,” she said.

But with KABA now deploying many of the microloans to businesses impacted by the civil unrest, the organization plans to not only strengthen its relationship with these neighborhood business owners, but also have a greater focus on generating opportunity in this part of town.

“We’re a partner in this community; that’s why (KABA’s office is) downtown,” Wessling Grosz said. “But now we’re trying to say, ‘How can we expand and extend our reach to put a lot of support and partnerships into developments that would positively affect those neighborhoods?’”

One such development is that of the former Chrysler Engine Plant site, the last remnant of Kenosha’s massive automotive industry. The
107-acre site, which was vacated in 2010 when the automaker declared bankruptcy, is being contemplated for an education, research and technology center.

The city has already begun environmental remediation on the land and is now in the process of installing infrastructure. Antaramian admits this project will take time before coming to fruition. The infrastructure itself will cost millions of dollars while private sector development would cost hundreds of millions, he said.

However, Antaramian envisions a cluster of small businesses and startups paired with higher education and a STEM school. All of those components would serve as a source of jobs, which the city’s McKinley, Lincoln Park, Columbus, Roosevelt and Uptown neighborhoods lost after the plant closed a decade ago, he added.

“This is something that is going to have to be done with the neighborhood,” Antaramian said. “Part of the next steps will be involving the neighborhood in the planning of these projects.”

While the rebuilding of infrastructure and redevelopment of the Chrysler site may be long-term solutions to spur economic prosperity in the community, the mayor’s short-term focus is on people, he said.

“You have a lot of people who are hurt,” Antaramian said. “And I don’t mean just the people who lost businesses and the housing, but the neighborhood is hurt.”

What Antaramian says he learned over the course of several community listening sessions is that he and Kenosha have lost touch with the community’s younger population. Specifically, Antaramian realized that Kenosha must capture the entrepreneurial spirt of community members in its older neighborhoods.

“A lot of what we’re looking at doing for the future is, how do we create that entrepreneurial spirit?” Antaramian said. “How do we also create the next fireman, policeman or the next mayor? We need to find a better way of channeling their energy and we need to make sure they see the future as a positive and that there’s a place for them in the future.”

The city is in the process of establishing multiple committees to turn its plans into action while several local, established companies like Jockey International are providing their support.

As part of their efforts, Kenosha-based Jockey is calling on business owners and community leaders to become more visible and active as the community works to rebuild, said Mark Fedyk, Jockey International president and chief operating officer.

“The spotlight is on Kenosha right now and it has been since August the 23rd,” Fedyk said. “As a community and business leaders, we have a moment. We have a moment here where we can change the narrative from violence and destruction and division to healing, to hope and to opportunity.”  n

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