When Korkut Colakoglu moved his stone fabrication company to Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley in 1999, he was one of the only business owners at the time to call the then-blighted West St. Paul Avenue home.
House of Stone Inc. moved into one of the many 100-year-old industrial buildings on the street that had sat vacant for years following the decline of Milwaukee’s machine manufacturing industry.
“There was nothing around,” Colakoglu said, recalling that his wife thought he was crazy for choosing a desolate part of town to operate a business.
But he saw huge potential for the neighborhood. Potawatomi Bingo (now Potawatomi Hotel & Casino) was located to the south and Marquette University was investing in development to the north. Meanwhile, the nearby Historic Third Ward neighborhood was being rebuilt with housing and new businesses.
Colakoglu chose to invest in the neighborhood by purchasing the building at 1701 W. St. Paul Ave. in 2000. Two decades later, he still considers it the best decision he’s made for the business.
“I knew from that point on that this valley will not go backwards, but forwards,” he said.
More than 50 businesses have moved to or expanded in the Menomonee Valley since 1999, creating 5,200 jobs, according to Menomonee Valley Partners, a nonprofit formed that same year to lead the valley’s redevelopment.
Over the past five years, the organization has focused on driving growth to an underdeveloped strip now known as the West St. Paul Avenue Design District.
The district, between 11th and 21st streets, is home to some of the valley’s longest-running businesses, including House of Stone, BBC Lighting and Brass Light Gallery, which provided a strong foundation for what Menomonee Valley Partners envisioned as a “one-stop shop” for both commercial and residential design.
Since September 2016, 11 local businesses have moved into West St. Paul’s 22 historic buildings, driving more foot traffic to the area. Seven of them are décor- and design-related companies: Riverview Antique Market, Christopher Kidd & Associates, ProStar Surfaces, Guardian Fine Art Services, The Warehouse MKE, Bachman Furniture and Selarom Construction.
“The whole idea of the Design District was brought about by convenience for customers, and instead of them running from Brookfield to Oak Creek to Mequon, everything can be done in one small area,” said Joe Bachman, the third-generation owner of Bachman Furniture.
He recently moved his 100-year-old business into the neighborhood after buying and renovating a portion of the former American Radiator Company building for a new 60,000-square-foot showroom at 1741 W. St. Paul Ave.
Since opening in early November, sales have exceeded monthly expectations and have increased by “double digits” compared to the retailer’s previous location on Capitol Drive, Bachman said.
An accessible location along I-94 and the free parking lot across the street are huge advantages for shoppers, but what’s been even more beneficial for Bachman Furniture is the ability to collaborate with the district’s complementary businesses, he said.
Before opening its new showroom, Bachman dropped all previous lighting products from his inventory and replaced them exclusively with BBC Lighting products. The display allows customers to see the products in “real-life” settings and make their purchase without leaving the store.
“The products we’re selling 100% make sense with what BBC is selling,” Bachman said. “If you’re buying a new bedroom set you want new living room lamps to go with it. Likewise, if you buy a new living room set, you want new lamps with it.”
The partnership has been successful for both businesses, which now swap customers almost every day, Bachman said. Plans are underway to bring more BBC Lighting inventory on to the showroom floor.
“Customers are coming and they’re asking for it,” he said.
In a similar way, Bachman regularly sends customers across the street to Sobelman’s Pub & Grill for a burger and Bloody Mary after a long day of shopping. He even opened an account at the restaurant so customers can buy a drink on him. In return, Sobelman’s diners have wandered into the showroom while waiting for a table.
Bachman said other cities’ design districts, including Miami, Seattle, Chicago and New York, are known to be competitive and cutthroat. Milwaukee’s is far from that.
“It’s really about collaboration and a mutual respect of one other’s products and clients,” he said, pointing to the large presence of family-owned businesses in the neighborhood.
Two doors down at House of Stone, work is underway on a major renovation that will expand the facility’s offices and showroom area and improve the building’s façade.[caption id="attachment_497526" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Rendering of House of Stone’s renovated facility.[/caption]
The project has been in the works for years, Colakoglu said, but was delayed as the company took on major commercial projects at Potawatomi Hotel, Wrigley Field, Fiserv Forum and Lambeau Field.
But with the recent surge of new design businesses on the street, he couldn’t put it off any longer.
“We figured we needed to be more presentable and more attractive for the neighborhood, and to bring in more foot traffic,” he said.
When the project wraps by mid-May, the new showroom will feature six full-size kitchen displays with home and commercial products.
House of Stone is also adding a designated space, called the Designer’s Locker Room, where designers of all specialties can meet with clients, reserve lockers to store their samples and materials and access Wi-Fi, all free of charge. They can also use portions of the new showroom to display their own products.
Colakoglu said the new space fills a need among independent designers for designated office or showroom space. But it’s also a way to bring more potential clients into the store.
“We are hoping that while they’re talking about their own design concepts with other products, we might also fall into the conversation,” he said.
Colakoglu described the valley’s 20-year growth as steady, but slow. He recalls spending more than a few nights down the street at Sobelman’s with friend and owner Dave Sobelman, chatting about the future of the neighborhood.
Sobelman opened his business at 1900 W. St. Paul Ave. also in 1999. The restaurant has long been considered a Milwaukee icon and destination. It currently has five area locations and serves its food at Fiserv Forum.
Despite the valley’s growth, Sobelman’s West St. Paul location has faced challenges of its own as Milwaukee’s restaurant scene has evolved and diners have many more options, said Sobelman.
“You don’t have to get in your car and drive to Sobelman’s for burgers and Bloody Marys,” he said. “Everybody’s making good burgers, everybody’s making good Bloody Marys and everybody’s making good food.”
The rise of the Design District has helped fill the restaurant on already busy weekends as neighboring businesses send over hungry shoppers, but weeknight business remains slow.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “After Bachman Furniture closes at 7 p.m., there’s nothing open on St. Paul Avenue.”
Sobelman has made his own efforts to champion the area, whether it’s by sprucing up his and others’ sidewalk and with potted plants and flowers or personally reaching out to local businesses, such as microbreweries and retailers, about available space.
“A lot of the companies that come to the valley are really by word of mouth from either the real estate community or businesses that are already there that are rooting for the district,” said Michelle Kramer, director of marketing and business development at Menomonee Valley Partners.
She said remaining available space in the district is limited, but the organization is working to recruit complementary businesses, specifically those specializing in kitchen and bath fixtures, tile, flooring, cabinetry and appliances.
“We have put out feelers to different companies that we know are outgrowing their space,” she said. “If they’re going to relocate, we’d love to see them relocate in the valley.” n