Last updated on December 31st, 2020 at 10:57 am
John Stibal arrived in West Allis in 1989, at the tail end of one of the toughest decades a city of its kind would ever see.
Between 1979 and 1989, West Allis lost 8,500 manufacturing jobs, 10,000 people moved out of the city and the average wage dropped 25 percent.
Stibal, then 40, had spent the past 16 years working in the development department for a white collar suburb of Waterloo, Iowa.
He was looking for a new challenge. As West Allis’ first director of development, he found one.
For nearly four decades, West Allis has struggled to regain its footing from the loss of those manufacturing jobs and to shake its image of a worn, blue collar industrial town.
There have been high points, including the $50 million transformation in 2004 of the former Allis-Chalmers site into the Summit Place office complex. And of course, setbacks. Promising developments have started and been halted as the result of the Great Recession. But as the economy has recovered, so has West Allis.
Developers take notice
Within the past 18 months, the city has added 1,800 jobs – including more than 800 from Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc. in 2014, when the company leased space at the Renaissance Center, 801 S. 60th St.
The development community is also starting to take notice of the city’s redevelopment efforts. Six prominent local development teams submitted proposals to the city to redevelop a site in the Six Points/Farmers Market neighborhood on the east side of West Allis.
Milwaukee-based multi-family housing development firm Mandel Group was selected by city officials for the Six Points/Farmers Market neighborhood project and is planning a $65 million mixed-use development that will include a specialty grocery store, two restaurants, retail space and up to 300 market-rate apartments. The development, which will break ground in June, heavily incorporates West Allis’s renowned farmer’s market by adding space for year-round activity at the market.
“West Allis is accelerating so much, so recently, that it is going to be really exciting in the next several years to be here to help evolve what’s coming,” Stibal said. “On every front, from industrial, to multi- family to commercial, there are things going on in every sector. There is not going to be any part of the city that you are not going to see some significant evolution.”
Stibal’s 1989 arrival in West Allis coincided with the city’s decision to get aggressive about redevelopment.
One of the first orders of business was redeveloping the 130-acre site Allis-Chalmers had occupied. Nearly 15,000 people went to work every day at the Allis-Chalmers plant in the late 1950s, but the company began suffering in the 1980s, and by 1987, it had declared bankruptcy.
The site was vacant by 1990, leaving several city blocks of empty buildings and pushing a major tax burden onto the city’s residents.
“Community change happens because you have progressive leadership,” said Patrick Schloss, West Allis community development manager, who has worked for the city since 2002. “Getting rid of the old industrial dinosaur properties and attracting a new tax base happens because of good leadership and a good plan.”
West Allis began creating tax incremental financing districts, a public financing mechanism used to divert future property tax revenue from a defined area to help fund an economic development project.
Today, West Allis has 14 TIF districts. The use of TIF made it possible for several developments to happen, including attracting West Allis’ largest employer and largest taxpayer, Quad/Graphics, which opened a plant in the former Kearney and Trecker Corp. manufacturing property in 1994. TIF was also used to redevelop part of the Allis-Chalmers site into the Summit Place complex, now the city’s largest center of employment.
“Our mission was to be entrepreneurial in how we dealt with business,” Stibal said. “If we can think along the same lines as business, it’s easier for us all to get what we need.”
After converting a former warehouse at 801-829 S. 60th St., which was also once part of the former Allis-Chalmers complex, into the Renaissance Center in 2012, Milwaukee developer Joel Lee said West Allis was the best community he had ever worked with.
“It’s all in the attitude,” said Lee, who owns Van Buren Management. “I think it’s a great community that has had a lot of inherent disadvantages because the manufacturing base literally eroded overnight. But they also have a lot of advantages and they’ve done very well for themselves.”
In 2007, the city also created the First-Ring Industrial Redevelopment Enterprise, or FIRE. FIRE is a community development entity formed to issue tax credits to help finance developments in low-income areas throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
FIRE has successfully received more than $100 million in New Market Tax Credits from the U.S. Department of the Treasury since its inception. Those tax credits are part of what attracted The Mandel Group to West Allis and will be used as a major funding source for the Six Points project, said Robert Monnat, chief executive officer of Mandel Group.
Affordability and accessibility to West Allis are two other factors that made the city an attractive site and development partner for Mandel, Monnat said.
“When we spoke to West Allis they said they wanted a project to put the city on the map,” Monnat said. “We want to show people that West Allis is a viable competitor in terms of where people desire to live. West Allis has put Allis-Chalmers behind them.”
The next Bay View?
West Allis stretches 4.5 miles from east to west. By comparison, if you start at Lake Michigan in Milwaukee and drive 4.5 miles west, you arrive at 60th Street, going through a lot of neighborhoods along the way.
Similarly, West Allis can be divided in thirds – the west, from New Berlin to Highway 100; the middle; and the east, from 70th Street to the West Milwaukee border.
It’s the eastern third that the Mandel Group is interested in because that area, with its older housing stock, farmers market and established bars and restaurants, has the most potential to become a vibrant urban neighborhood similar to Milwaukee’s Bay View, Monnat said.
“There is a certain sense of a traditional neighborhood (in eastern West Allis),” Monnat said. “There are tremendous amounts of Milwaukee-esque type of establishments that make up an authentic neighborhood, much like Riverwest, Bay View, and similar working class communities.”
Nearby restaurants include Kegel’s, the newly-reopened Crawdaddy’s, Chef Paz, Antigua, Sofia’s and The West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe.
The West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe, 6832 Becher St., has been in West Allis since 1968. The Lutz family purchased the business in 2002, and added a restaurant almost three years ago. They recently purchased a building across the street, at 6807 W. Becher St., that will be leased to a new restaurant, Ka-Bobs, which will open Feb. 23.
Owner Mark Lutz, said since the shop added the restaurant, business has “taken off like crazy.”
“We have a large demographic mix – older folks whose husbands worked at Allis-Chalmers and a lot of young couples who have moved into the neighborhood and like to have a place to walk to,” Lutz said. “My neighborhood is like East Tosa, but more affordable. There are a lot of advantages nowadays to start out in West Allis – and there are 70,000 (city residents) who do need to eat.”
Milwaukee developer Ogden & Co. has also recognized the potential in West Allis, both from an affordability standpoint and because of the city’s central location. Ogden is planning to start construction this spring on a $33 million mixed-use development east of South 84th Street and south of West Greenfield Avenue that will include 216 market-rate apartments and 10,000 square feet of commercial space.
The Ogden development will be located next to the $13 million, 104-room Hampton Inn & Suites hotel that opened last fall at 8201 W. Greenfield Ave.
Jonathan Ross, president of Ogden & Co., said the West Allis apartments will be market-rate but will feature the same amenities found in downtown Milwaukee and at Ogden’s Sutter Creek apartments in Brookfield, including stainless steel appliances, nine-foot ceilings and balconies.
“We’re looking at young professionals and potentially empty nesters (as potential tenants),” Ross said.
Wauwatosa was ahead of the development curve, and now it is too expensive for many people, so West Allis is an area being targeted by developers, Ross said.
“People are going to start moving to West Allis and the secret will be lost and those rents will start to creep up,” Ross said. “We see this as an opportunity because young people want to live close to downtown, but can’t afford to pay downtown rents. West Allis is centrally located and almost dead center to the employment centers of the area.”
Ross said the ease of working with the city also makes working with West Allis an appealing prospect for developers.
“Like many communities that were part of manufacturing and the so-called rust bucket, they are trying to change their image and create new jobs and industries,” Ross said. “When the industries start coming back or new ones are formed, it helps with residential, and vice versa.”
One of the next projects on the horizon for the city is the redevelopment of the former Milwaukee Ductile iron foundry at South 68th Street and West Mitchell Street, just west of the Mandel development site. In 2009, Metal Technologies closed the plant, leaving a large, vacant and aging industrial facility in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
The city’s Community Development Authority owns the site, including a three-story 44,500-square-foot building on the property where Stibal envisions ground floor parking and two stories of office or apartments. The city will likely issue an RFP for the property late this year or in 2017, he said.
This summer, West Allis is also planning to launch a National Avenue Corridor plan, which will include an $800,000 to $1 million funding pool to help business owners along National Avenue improve the facades of their buildings. This will coincide with a street improvement plan along National Avenue.
Since taking over as mayor in 2008, Dan Devine has worked to improve the image of West Allis. He said there is still the outdated stigma that West Allis is a tired, old industrial suburb, but insists nothing could be further from the truth – especially now.
“Allis-Chalmers was a big fish; When you lose those jobs and that population it leads to elements of urban decay, but that’s not us anymore,” Devine said.
After eight years as mayor, Devine said he is surprised at how long it has taken to “get the ball rolling,” but he said over the past two years, he feels like the work that was put in place, even beginning with former Mayor Jeannette Bell, is beginning to gain traction.
“It seems like people are finally starting to believe in this community and realize the potential,” Devine said.
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