Sherman Phoenix tenants prepare to take flight

Mission drives entrepreneurs to join Sherman Park entrepreneurial hub

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Trueman McGee is an entrepreneur at heart. After he lost 70 pounds and several friends and family members asked him for his secrets, McGee launched Getting Tired Fitness in 2012.

When his clients needed healthier meal options to accelerate their fitness goals, McGee created spring rolls filled with healthy ingredients, like sweet potato and black bean, and he answered another need.

This BMO Harris Bank branch, burned in last year’s civil unrest in Sherman Park, will be converted into the Sherman Phoenix.

“People loved the spring rolls more than they loved the squats, burpees, pushups and all the exercises,” McGee said.

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In 2015, he formed his second enterprise, Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, to sell the concoctions – there are now 12 flavors – at area farmers markets and events. And it has found success, with 20,000 sold in 2015, 32,000 in 2016 and 42,000 already in 2017. It currently has five employees and shares a commercial kitchen in Bay View.

Funky Fresh is one of 12 small black-owned businesses that plan to move into the Sherman Phoenix, an entrepreneurial hub being developed by JoAnne Johnson-Sabir and Juli Kaufmann in the former BMO Harris Bank branch damaged by the civil unrest in Sherman Park last year. It is expected to open in the spring.

The pair came up with the idea when Johnson-Sabir was seeking a new space for her juice cafe, The Juice Kitchen, with the help of Kaufmann, a real estate developer.

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“We then began to think about all of the entrepreneurs that have come to us looking for support,” Johnson-Sabir said. “We began to think about what a hub for culture, art, food and wellness could potentially be.”

The pair spoke with their friends and neighbors in the Sherman Park community after the unrest and noticed a sense of the black community wanting to be connected, seen and heard in a hyper segregated city, she said. Plus, there was a large blighted building gutted by fire that would have otherwise sat vacant. BMO Harris had decided to build a new branch across the street.

“Juli and I, in our different areas of expertise, really do work on this call and response,” Johnson-Sabir said. “What is the call? What is the need?”

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The call has been answered and the wheels are in motion to create the community and business hub at 3637 W. Fond du Lac Ave. BMO Harris Bank is donating $50,000 over two years to support the hub and the businesses in it. The City of Milwaukee has approved $225,000 in tax increment financing for the project. Philanthropists and investors including Lynde Uihlein, Albert Orr, Alex Lasry, John Miller and an anonymous professional athlete have made significant contributions. And the Sherman Phoenix has launched an Indiegogo campaign to collect gifts from the wider community of as little as $5.

“It really is getting folks engaged that may not have the $50,000, the $75,000, but they still want to be part of the movement,” Johnson-Sabir said. “The largest portion of the money that we’ve received to date has been through individual givers.

“I think it’s really about a lot of folks wanting to figure out how to engage in change and really wanting to be about uplifting their fellow neighbors and community and really wanting to coalesce around this idea of unity.”

The property will include tenant spaces of between 112 square feet and 2,000 square feet, depending on each business’ space needs. The rents will range from $125 to $1,400 per month. Once the hub begins to cash flow, investors will receive a modest return, Johnson-Sabir said.

Tenants will include a mix of food, wellness, beauty and retail businesses. The 12 tenants are: The Juice Kitchen, Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, Embody Yoga, Sabir’s Karate Center, Hello Beautiful, RSVP Confections, Queens Closet Consignment Shop, #DreamsNeverExpire!, Sister Locs, Rees Barbershop, Studio 69 and Buffalo Boss.

Joanna Brooks, owner of Embody Yoga, is moving her business from the Walnut Way Center in Lindsay Heights to a space larger than 1,000 square feet in the Sherman Phoenix. She decided to join the community because she liked the idea of rising from the ashes and revitalizing the Sherman Park neighborhood, and she wanted to learn from the other entrepreneurs who will be in the space. And it makes good business sense for Embody.

“It would be a great opportunity to connect to the community that I’m trying to serve, primarily,” Brooks said. “My business is dedicated to the process of sharing yoga with people of color. When I would take classes, either in Milwaukee or other cities, it wouldn’t be unusual to be the only person of color in the room. And for some people, that can be an uncomfortable or unwelcome experience. It was really important to me to be able to create a space where people of color understood they were welcome.”

Brooks needed a larger space to take Embody to the next level, but said she specifically chose the Sherman Phoenix instead of another space because of its mission.

Like Brooks, McGee said he did not have to move to Sherman Park, but wanted to do so to contribute to the neighborhood’s renewal.

“I grew up in the Sherman Park area, so they always have a special connection with me and I would love to do what I can to help resurrect that area,” McGee said. “It was thriving when I was a kid. Now it’s like a 180, total opposite.”

With the 500-square-foot space he’s moving into at the Phoenix, McGee plans to hire at least three more people. Funky Fresh’s next goal is to get into grocery stores.

Not only will tenants like McGee and Brooks have access to a new operational space, but they also will be enrolled in a two-year business development program, Johnson-Sabir said. She will share the lessons she has learned as a small business owner, help the companies scale and provide mentorship and investor connections.

The project is expected to create 45 jobs.

The renovations to the 20,000-square-foot space will include a food hall, an outdoor patio, and community gathering space that could host dance performances or cultural events. The hope is that the community feels connected to the Sherman Phoenix and can shop, eat, learn and grow together in the space, she said. The project is expected to cost about $2.5 million.

“The building is completely gutted and burned, so it is an empty vessel,” Johnson-Sabir said. “The majority of it will be just for construction costs.”

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