Nelson Schmidt revitalizes Wisconsin Avenue building

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A café that will open soon in the first floor of Nelson Schmidt Inc. office building could become a new destination for people who work in downtown Milwaukee. The café will be the latest improvement that the firm has made to the building at 600 E. Wisconsin Ave.

In 2006, Daniel Nelson Jr., the president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Nelson Schmidt, was looking for a new location for his firm, a full-service marketing communications agency.

At the time, the firm was located in the Chase Tower in downtown Milwaukee and was planning to move. After considering one potential location, Nelson and other executives with the firm were standing at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Jackson Street. Nelson got an idea. A three-story brick building, constructed in 1910 at the northeast corner of that intersection intrigued him.

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“From the outside I figured this was a good building,” Nelson said. “It had good bones.”

600 East Nelson Schmidt is making improvements to its headquarters building northeast of Wisconsin Avenue and Jackson Street in downtown Milwaukee. A café, with a walk-up window, will open in late March.

The building had a significant amount of vacant space and the owners, real estate investors Tim Olson and Sonny Bando, were willing to sell. Nelson bought the 19,272-square-foot building for $1.85 million, according to city records.

Nelson Schmidt revitalized the building by occupying the upper two floors and invested in significant renovations. The firm continued to lease the first floor to other tenants including Bowne & Co. Inc. and out-of-state law firms that needed temporary office space while trying cases at the nearby Federal Courthouse.

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“We didn’t need (the first floor) space at the time,” Nelson said. “But we were able to fully occupy the rest of the building.”

Shortly after purchasing the building in 2006, the firm did a dramatic renovation to the second floor. The entire floor was gutted to return the space to its original look, featuring wood timbers, steel support columns and brick walls.

The space is similar to many of the offices in redeveloped former warehouse buildings in the Historic Third Ward. Nelson loves that look, but had no interest in moving his company to the Third Ward.

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“I never would have bought a building in the Third Ward,” he said. “We are a professional services company, not a design firm. Being in the central business district, on the Avenue, was key to our brand.”

The three-story historic building is a rarity on Wisconsin Avenue, which is dominated by newer and taller office buildings, particularly on the east side of downtown.

“Finding this building was somewhat miraculous,” Nelson said. “It is one of the last remaining buildings like this on Wisconsin Avenue. The others have been torn down.”

The firm did less dramatic improvements to its third floor office space, including new paint, new carpeting and new ceilings. Steel columns on the floor were exposed.

Nelson had a long-range plan for more improvements to the building, but the next phase was delayed during and after the Great Recession.

But now he is making dramatic improvements to the first floor. Bowne, which was acquired by RR Donelley in 2010, left the building in 2012, opening up the entire first floor.

Construction crews have gutted the first floor space to build a 2,050-square-foot café and a 3,500-square-foot business center, which has offices and a conference room that will be leased on short term rentals, most of which will likely be out-of-state law firms. Eventually, Nelson hopes his company will grow permanently into the business center office space, and it has been designed to accommodate that future growth.

The café was not in Nelson’s original plans for the building. But after studying the neighborhood, he realized that most of the nearby office buildings lacked first floor retail space and the east end of Wisconsin Avenue is lacking places for downtown workers to get a bite to eat or grab a cup of coffee.

“This is an ideal location for a food service establishment,” Nelson said. “There is no other retail opportunity on this end of the Avenue.”

The café will serve lunch and breakfast. It will also have a walk-up window at the corner of Wisconsin and Jackson where pedestrians can quickly place an order, grab the items and then go.

“(The walk-up window) is going to be fantastic” Nelson said. “It’s going to be a game-changer. It’s going to put (the building) on the map. It’s going to be fantastic for the city. There’s nothing like it in the city.”

Nelson Schmidt employees will be able to eat for free at the café for breakfast and lunch every day, Nelson said.

“This will hopefully help with recruitment,” he said.

Numerous food and beverage operators were interested in running the café, but all wanted a long-term lease that Nelson was reluctant to commit to because he wants to retain the option of expanding Nelson Schmidt’s offices into the space in the future. Therefore the café is owned by Nelson and it will be operated by Jill and Brian Ruffing, the owners and operators of Java House in Cedarburg. Food and beverages at the café will come from local providers.

Nelson received two white box grants for a total of $60,000 from the City of Milwaukee, which are provided to encourage downtown building owners to create retail spaces in their buildings. Acceptance of the grant requires that the space remain available for retail use for at least three years. After that, Nelson said he will evaluate the success of the café and Nelson Schmidt’s space needs to determine how the first floor space will be used.

The café is expected to open in late March. If it is successful and Nelson Schmidt needs to expand, the café could remain open and the building could be expanded upward, Nelson said. An engineering analysis of the building determined that two stories could be added on top of the structure, he said.

Nelson also plans to upgrade the exterior of the building to raise its profile and the profile of Nelson Schmidt.

“People right now don’t know where we are,” he said.

The exterior of the building will be cleaned, and signage will be added. An entrance canopy, awnings and exterior lighting will also be added to make the building’s appearance more eye-catching.

Nelson hopes the café and building upgrades will attract attention and make the building a downtown destination for coffee, breakfast, lunch and meetings.

“I want 600 East to become part of Milwaukee’s culture,” he said.

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