A new gift shop, Bronzeville Crossing, opened Tuesday at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport as what operators consider an homage to Milwaukee's Bronzeville neighborhood with the same name. However, a key component of the retail concept remains in the works thanks to delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The storefront, located in Concourse C, features maps and graphics and plays music that reflect the history and culture of the north side neighborhood. Beyond decorations, the idea is to sell a selection of local products sourced from some of Bronzeville's Black-owned businesses in addition to the typical snacks, magazines and souvenirs that travelers would typically find at an airport gift shop.
But when Bronzeville Crossing celebrated its grand opening, beside cheesehead hats, Packers memorabilia and Milwaukee-themed T-shirts, its products lacked that hyper-local appeal.
"I actually thought it would have been done already, COVID just has thrown a ton of curveballs," said Mark Wade, who has a joint venture with the airport's retail concessions provider, Paradies Lagardere.
The Atlanta-based company has a 10-year contract to upgrade the airport's dining and retail offerings with a $6.8 million capital investment and 30% participation from Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBE).
Wade joined a number of Milwaukee County officials, including Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson and Milwaukee County Airport Director Brian Dranzik in a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the new store on Tuesday.
"Milwaukee County is making significant progress in our vision for racial equity," Crowley said during the ceremony. "This new retail partnership is a great example of the progress that we're making on this journey."
As the Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) partner, Wade is leading the effort to source local products to sell at the newest store and eventually the other neighborhood-themed stores recently opened at the airport, such as the Bay View Exchange.
He declined to elaborate on exactly how COVID-19 slowed down the process, but said locally sourced products such as handmade jewelry, face masks, candles and handbags will be available at Bronzeville Crossing within the next 90 days.
Wade said he visited several stores in the Bronzeville neighborhood about three weeks ago looking for merchandise to sell at the airport. He mentioned Birdsong's, which sells soaps, incense and other fragrance products, as one of the vendors he was primarily interested in.
"It was unbelievable the creativity we saw in these young people, and we look forward to expanding their opportunities into the airport," said Wade.
The opening of Bronzeville Crossing as well as 10 other Paradies Lagardere-operated concepts, including Scoreboard, Bay View Exchange, Summerfest Marketplace, Trip Advisor and Baron’s Beer Garden, were all expedited by the prospect of the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, he said.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the DNC has been converted to an all-virtual, nationwide event, booting Milwaukee out of the international spotlight.
It was originally expected to bring 50,000 visitors into town, mainly by plane. Wade said former County Executive Chris Abele over the past two years had pushed for the stores' completion in time for the influx of tourists this summer.
"When it became clear that (the DNC) was not going to happen, we still had three stores to finish," said Wade. "If the convention came, we would have finished in time, but we were working at a crazy pace... It's like two years worth of work that we squeezed into 14 months."