Main Street limbo

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A proposed program designed to revitalize Milwaukee’s neighborhood commercial districts has received several grant commitments, but it still has not been adopted by the Common Council. Last year, the Department of City Development, the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) and more than 100 volunteers developed the program, called Main Street Milwaukee, by researching successful city commercial district revitalization efforts throughout the nation.
The program, if implemented, would use an approach similar to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Wisconsin Main Street programs to improve aging commercial districts. Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have similar programs.
Up to four commercial areas would be selected for the Main Street Milwaukee program in the first year and one to two more would be added in each subsequent year. The program would provide technical assistance for fa?ade improvement design, business planning, marketing and other business issues.
The program would help retailers in the business districts learn about and obtain grant funding for improving the appearance of their stores. The program would provide businesses with ideas to enhance the aesthetic appearance of their stores and the entire street.
“A lot of business owners can’t visualize what the street would look like,” said Leo Ries, director of the LISC Milwaukee office. “This would give the business owner a sense of what is possible. That would motivate them to take the next step.”
The Main Street Milwaukee program also would help the businesses work together to market their commercial districts as shopping destinations.
The program would provide expertise to small-business owners who may know how to run their business but might not be as knowledgeable about things such as marketing and building improvements, Ries said.
“What it will do is provide organization and structural support for small businesses in older commercial districts,” he said. “In a suburban mall, somebody (the mall owner) is controlling the environment and dealing with promotions, crime and other issues. Main Street Milwaukee will apply a similar strategy to older commercial districts.”
The Main Street Milwaukee program has received several grant commitments. State Farm Insurance will provide $50,000 a year for three years, Bank One will provide $150,000 over four years, the Bradley Foundation will provide $25,000, the state Department of Commerce will provide $25,000 and LISC will provide $210,000 over three years.
“We’re lining up a lot of the private sector support for the program,” Ries said.
Funding from the city of Milwaukee would be provided by the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has thrown his support behind the Main Street Milwaukee initiative. During his campaign for the office, he said the program should be implemented right away.
“The mayor is very committed to this program,” said Carlene Orig, Barrett’s press secretary. “He wants the Main Street program to move forward, but right now things are out of our hands.”
The program must be approved by the Common Council to move forward, Orig said. However, it has been held up in the Community and Economic Development Committee. Ald. Joe Davis, the chairman of the committee, could not be reached for comment.
Common Council President Willie Hines said he is confident the Main Street Milwaukee program will be approved before the end of the year.
“I think it’s a good program,” he said. “I do believe it will be implemented. I’m hopeful it will happen sooner than later.”
Hines said aldermen want to be sure the Main Street Milwaukee program complements, and does not duplicate, current initiatives such as business improvement districts and the city’s facade improvement program.
“We don’t want to duplicate the tools we currently have in the toolbox,” he said. “We’re trying to sort out these issues. I think we’re very close.”
Some city residents have complained that several economic development projects have occurred in the downtown area in recent years but, those critics say, the city’s lower-income neighborhoods have been ignored.
The Main Street Milwaukee program could help address some of those concerns, Ries said. CDBG funds must be spent to improve lower-income areas. Therefore, the first commercial districts that will be part of the Main Street Milwaukee program will be in lower-income areas, he said.
Hines said the city already has several services to improve neighborhoods. It will be important to make sure the Main Street Milwaukee program adds to and does not duplicate those efforts, he said.
Main Street Milwaukee supporters hope to eventually expand the program to the entire city, Ries said.
“In order for the city to be successful, we have to invest in our neighborhoods,” he said. “But we have to create a structure that enables meaningful investment in our neighborhoods.”
No specific commercial districts have been selected yet to be part of the Main Street Milwaukee program.
“We anticipate it being a competitive process,” Hines said.
Barrett still has not selected a commissioner for the Department of City Development, which would oversee the Main Street Milwaukee program. Several Milwaukee developers and other real estate professionals are anxious to see the mayor appoint someone to that important post so their projects can move forward.
Ries said some city aldermen also may be frustrated that the DCD post has not been filled yet and are waiting to act on the Main Street Milwaukee proposal until after the appointment has been made.
“I think some aldermen are using the (Main Street Milwaukee) program to raise the question of where’s the commissioner,” he said.
Hines said some aldermen want the new DCD commissioner to have a chance to provide his or her input about the Main Street Milwaukee program before it is adopted.
“I think that would be a poor reason to hold (the program) up,” Hines said.
Ries agreed that the status of the DCD commissioner should not affect the Main Street Milwaukee program.
“Since the mayor has come out and endorsed it, any person he picks is going to implement his agenda,” Ries said.
August 20, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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