The leaders behind a decade-long effort to convert a 24-acre brownfield in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley into an urban park and outdoor science classroom are celebrating the completion of the project this month. Led by Menomonee Valley Partners and the Urban Ecology Center, the $25 million project involved extending the Hank Aaron State Trail by six miles, adding three bike/pedestrian bridges, transforming a vacant rail yard into the 24-acre Three Bridges Park, and opening an UEC branch at 3700 W. Pierce St. to offer community and school-based environmental education programs. The two organizations, which formed a separate nonprofit, UEC MVP Project Inc., to raise funds for the project, have decided to dissolve that entity when it receives its final pledge this month, said Urban Ecology Center executive director Ken Leinbach. The project’s $1.5 million endowment, which is set aside for the environmental management of the park, will be transferred from UEC MVP Project to the Urban Ecology Center, Leinbach said. Those who are new to the city might not know the history behind the formerly blighted industrial site that’s now used by families, bikers, walkers, runners and anglers, Leinbach said. Ten years ago, the site looked a lot different. Barbed wire fence, a gully and five railroad lines prevented neighbors from accessing the Menomonee River. At the time, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers had identified the environmental blight as negatively affecting residents’ health, Leinbach said.
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The “From the Ground Up” campaign launched in 2010 as a public/private partnership that included the two nonprofit groups, the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin's Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources. The community rallied around the effort to transform the area into a lively community space, Leinbach said. The project was funded by a roughly equal mix of public and private dollars.“I’ve been involved in a lot of campaigns and this one came in on time and we raised a little more money than we needed, and we were able to bring costs down,” he said.
In addition to the new infrastructure, efforts to remediate the soil have allowed native plants to flourish. Wildlife that hasn’t been recorded in Milwaukee for 100 years now inhabits the valley, Leinbach said.
“It’s made national attention as a major reclamation success,” he said. The area has also drawn several employers and many jobs over the past decade. Neighboring businesses such as Palermo Villa Inc., Komatsu, Rexnord, and Charter Wire share a sense of ownership of the park, with employees often helping maintain trails and clean up the space, Leinbach said. “It certainly exceeded expectations,” he said. “The point of the whole Menomonee Valley partnership was to revitalize the blighted land in the valley and bring jobs. That was the expectation. The fact that it worked so well is really quite remarkable. It’s such a nice amalgam of the community and the environment all tied together. It’s a really special thing.”