The ACRE alumni

Diversity program produces industry, community leaders

Donsia Strong Hill, Deshea Agee and Carla Cross.

Last updated on August 14th, 2023 at 06:03 pm

When Kevin Newell hired Terrell Walter at his Milwaukee-based real estate development company, Royal Capital Group, there was one stipulation: Walter had to graduate from the Associates in Commercial Real Estate program.

Newell was an ACRE graduate himself, having gone through the program while still a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2007.

He knew the connections and skills Walter would make through ACRE, a program created in 2005 at Marquette University to train minorities for career paths in the commercial real estate industry,  would be invaluable to both Royal Capital and his young protégé.

Walter, now a project manager at Royal Capital who oversees $12 million to $20 million deals, graduated from ACRE in 2015.

“ACRE was a core component of Terrell’s overall development of his career,” Newell said. “ACRE opened up the doors for me. It was the networking, but it also taught me the basic fundamentals of the industry.”

Since the ACRE program’s first class graduated in 2005, its impact has been seen throughout the City of Milwaukee and beyond in the work being done by minority developers, brokers and contractors.

In addition to Newell and Walter, ACRE counts as alumni three current Milwaukee aldermen – Milele Coggs, Khalif Rainey and Jose Perez – and three Milwaukee business improvement district executive directors: Jacqueline Ward, North Avenue/Fond du Lac – Marketplace BID 32; Deshea Agee, Historic King Drive Business Improvement District #8; and Keith Stanley, Avenues West Association.

James, Jalen and Clifton Phelps, owners of Milwaukee-based JCP Construction, all graduated from the program, as did Melissa Goins, founder and president of Milwaukee-based Maures Development Group LLC, Carla Cross, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Cross Development Group Inc., and Vincent Lyles, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee – and that’s just to name a few.

“There are also those that are quietly changing their own neighborhoods through the ownership of a duplex or four-unit, building wealth, building community,” said Mark Eppli,  Robert B. Bell, Sr., chair in real estate at Marquette, who started the ACRE program after moderating a commercial real estate conference in Milwaukee in 2004. Following the conference, Eppli was approached by a colleague, former Marquette dean of business Tom Bausch, who noted there wasn’t a single minority in the audience.


Eppli took the comment to heart and started doing some research. What he found was a report in the Wall Street Journal that showed less than 1 percent of the industry’s 100,000 professionals – including leasing brokers, asset managers and real estate company executives – who handle the $1.5 trillion of commercial real estate in the country are black.

By comparison, blacks make up 7.9 percent of business executives and 5 percent of lawyers.

“Locally, someone only needs to attend one commercial real estate event to witness the lack of diversity in the profession,” Eppli said. “At a recent commercial real estate breakfast held at Marquette University, there were over 360 attendees, but no minorities were present, confirming the need to expand the profession beyond its current demographic.”

Bader Philanthropies Inc., formerly the Helen Bader Foundation, agreed to fund the program for the first three years and the ACRE program was launched in 2005.

“Overall, the inaugural class had the greatest impression on me, maybe because we were all in this together and trying something new,” Eppli said.

During the year prior to launching ACRE, Eppli and other industry experts collected contact information from potential students. The students who applied were required to take a mini-Graduate Management Admission Test/ACT exam to make sure they had the quantitative and qualitative skills needed to be successful in the field.

They were then interviewed to assess their passion for the commercial real estate industry.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the brightest and best capitalized developers in Milwaukee were struggling to get developments off the ground, so Eppli decided to put the ACRE program on hiatus in 2010.

By that time, ACRE had been running successfully for five years and had graduated 140 men and women of African-American, Asian, Latino and American Indian descent.

“Graduating students into that environment with the expectation of using their newfound knowledge in the field was peddling false hope,” Eppli said. “To me, false hope is extraordinarily corrosive.”

The Milwaukee office of Local Initiatives Support Corp. took the lead on revitalizing the ACRE program in 2013, this time partnering with Marquette, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and private industry.

Eppli has remained an active ACRE board member and assists with student and instructor selection, student project reviews and financial support.

Downtown Milwaukee skyline
Downtown Milwaukee skyline

Robert Lemke, an architect and associate professor at MSOE, and Carolyn Esswein, director of community design solutions at UWM’s School of Urban Planning, have since stepped up to take on more prominent roles in the program.

Donsia Strong Hill, LISC Milwaukee’s executive director and a 2005 graduate of ACRE, oversees the program.

“I want to make sure the talented people who spend their time with us leave with a demonstrated ability to go forward in some capacity of development if they want to,” Hill said. “It’s quite a joy. I feel very passionate about it.”

When Strong Hill joined the ACRE program in 2005, she was working as a bond lawyer and secretary for the state Department of Regulation and Licensing. In her work, she often represented financial institutions, underwriters and developers. Strong Hill said she wanted to understand how they thought, how they came to certain conclusions and why a lot of transactions would start and stop because of what she called “money tension.”

The 26-week program gave Strong Hill and her colleagues, many of whom were already working in the profession, a better handle on the financial side of development.

“Everyone is not equipped with the demeanor to be a developer,” she said. “My biggest takeaway was the understanding of the spreadsheets, pro formas and understanding what goes into creating the formulas.”

LISC graduated its first ACRE class in 2014. The class of 2015 consisted of 23 students ranging in age from 25 to 63, with an average age of 37.

Most students have college degrees and real world experience. Applicants still have to pass a rigorous screening test, which includes an interview with an ACRE alumnus and a real estate professional. They also must be proficient in Microsoft Word and Excel and be employed full-time. The $300 application fee is refunded after successful completion of the 26- to 28-week course.

The current round of funding for ACRE comes from Milwaukee-based Mandel Group Inc., The Opus Group (based in Minneapolis with a local office in Menomonee Falls) and other Milwaukee-area commercial real estate companies, as well as from NAIOP Wisconsin, the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin and the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee. Local real estate professionals also volunteer as ACRE instructors.

Barry Mandel, president of Mandel Group, has contributed approximately $175,000 to the program. He also has been an instructor and hosted many of the networking events for ACRE students and graduates over the years.

“The money is a small comparison to what I’ve received back and the relationships I’ve been able to have with the ACRE students and the impact they’ve had on the city,” Mandel said. “Attending the graduations and seeing many of the alumni move forward in their professions has been the most gratifying for me.”

Jim Villa, CEO of NAIOP Wisconsin, said the program is invaluable for its ability to pave the way for minority students to be connected to the commercial real estate industry.

“NAIOP has historically been involved in bringing in industry professionals for networking and to provide the curriculum and we hope to continue that partnership,” Villa said. “Increasing diversity in our field brings diversity of thought, perspective and background. It’s great to be expanding that base.”

LISC started its current ACRE class on Oct. 11. The focus has always been commercial, industrial and residential real estate, but this year, Strong Hill has added another component.

Two Milwaukee Department of City Development staff members, Kenneth Little and Dwayne Edwards, serve as ACRE board members. This year, the class will partner with DCD to study some of the properties the city owns and the students will come up with their own potential projects for the sites.

“ACRE graduates can develop anywhere and we want them to do that, but we hope we have a strong cohort of folks interested in bettering the lives and the real estate in the areas that we work in,” Strong Hill said. “For example, Mitchell Street or King Drive, how would they orient a building? Does it make sense for market rate, first floor commercial, does it cry out for community space or is it better kept as straight retail space? We want to look at properties like that in a clustered approach because that is how you make a difference.”

Strong Hill said the ACRE program will continue to be tweaked to keep it focused and relevant. Its strongest attribute is the creation of a lifelong network, she said. Strong Hill often finds herself calling on her fellow ACRE graduates for projects or lifting up someone she knows through ACRE because she can count on their work ethic, she said.

“This is one area where all three major institutions are involved, the political apparatus is engaged and supports us and industry supports us, not only financially, but also in-kind,” Strong Hill said. “I believe there is goodwill all around this city, but there has to be a vision of what something can be in order for people to come around it. ACRE created that vision.”

Across Milwaukee, other industries, particularly manufacturing, continue to struggle with the skills gap – the idea that employers are not able to find enough potential employees to fill their needs, while unemployment remains an issue in the central city.

So why won’t a program like ACRE work in other industries? Those involved with the program said the reason for ACRE’s initial success was its inception, and those achievements are now building upon themselves.

“The reason this worked was there was a committed individual, Mark (Eppli), who talked to others, and The Bader Foundation, and everyone had a desire to move this forward,” Strong Hill said. “And then you had a group of people with a pent-up desire. Those kinds of people exist in all races and all income levels, but ACRE was the perfect stew. I don’t know if the same thing exists in other industries.”

Members of The ACRE Class of 2005


Deshea Agee
Deshea Agee

Deshea Agee
Executive director, Historic King Drive Business Improvement District #8

Deshea Agee was selling advertising for radio station WMCS-AM 1290, when he heard an ad for a new program through Marquette University to train minorities for careers in commercial real estate. He applied for the ACRE program and did well enough during the 26-week class to get an internship with Pabst Farms, developer Peter Bell’s 1,500-acre Oconomowoc mixed-use development.

“I was at one of the biggest developments in the state at the time, sitting in on brokerage meetings and having conversations about the hospital (Aurora Medical Center in Summit) and its TIF,” Agee said. “It was amazing.”

After the internship, Agee went to work with fellow ACRE alumna Carla Cross at her firm, Cross Development Group Inc., and later took a job with Milwaukee’s Department of City Development, where he worked for nine years before taking on his current role as executive director of the Historic King Drive BID.

“ACRE showed me this was the place I should be,” Agee said.

Carla Cross
Carla Cross

Carla Cross
President and chief executive officer, Cross Development Group Inc.

Carla Cross was not new to the real estate development world when she signed up for the ACRE program; she started Cross Management Services Inc. and Cross Development Group in 1999. But Cross was intrigued by all of the different pieces that went into a deal and wanted to learn more.

“I thought (ACRE) was really good,” Cross said. “We covered the financial aspects, pro forma, cap rates, and many of the aspects of putting a deal together.”

After graduation, Cross worked on several projects and tried her hand at a commercial development that would have included an office building and condominiums, but the timing wasn’t right with the Great Recession looming.

And while Cross may try commercial development again, her firm was recently hired by the Milwaukee Bucks to assist in meeting business development goals for construction of the new arena being built in downtown Milwaukee.

Donsia Strong Hill
Donsia Strong Hill

Donsia Strong Hill
Executive director, Local Initiatives Support Corp. Milwaukee

Donsia Strong Hill was a bond lawyer who represented developers and hoped the ACRE program would give her a better understanding of the tension money often created in the 11th hour of a deal.

“The program gave me a very good understanding, and it also helped me understand there is a certain level of risk you have to be able to handle in this profession,” Strong Hill said. “It’s not for the faint of heart. Not everyone is equipped to be a developer.”

After graduation, Strong Hill continued practicing law and began working with her husband’s development company, Hill Group Companies. She has spent much of her career making sure good, affordable housing stock is available.

Now, as the executive director of LISC, Hill has a chance to bring new people through the ACRE program.

“It’s quite a joy and I feel very passionate about it,” Hill said. “I really want to make sure we get this right.”

Vincent Lyles
Vincent Lyles

Vincent Lyles
President, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee

Mark Eppli met Vincent Lyles and told him about a program he was putting together called ACRE. Lyles, who was working in the public finance group at Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. at the time, had gotten pretty familiar with tax credits but didn’t know the real estate business very well and was intrigued.

“I had no clue who else would be involved and how many talented people would wind up in one room,” Lyles said. “I give a lot of credit to Mark, but also the Irgens, Mandels and Dennis Kleins of the world for stepping up; that’s what made it a lot of fun.”

Lyles left Baird to be president of M&I Community Development Corp. and later, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs.

“I’m very bullish on the ACRE program,” Lyles said. “I was glad to see it came back and came back with a vengeance. I’m glad to see a new group of people out there wanting to improve our city.”

James Phelps
James Phelps

James Phelps
Owner, JCP Construction

James Phelps was a painter with Milwaukee Public Schools when he heard about the ACRE program. He wanted a better opportunity and real estate had always intrigued him. During a networking event held by ACRE, Phelps made a connection with Dennis Klein, formerly of KBS Construction Inc., which is now part of C.D. Smith Construction Inc. That connection is what made Phelps decide to go into construction.

He interned with KBS after graduating from the ACRE program and later worked for the company before launching his own successful construction business, JCP Construction, in 2009 with his brothers Jalin and Clifton, who later graduated from the ACRE program.

“You can have a skillset, but if you don’t have the relationships to go along with it, it’s really hard,” Phelps said. “ACRE gives you a really well-rounded understanding of what goes into making a project a real project.”

Keith Stanley
Keith Stanley

Keith Stanley
Executive director, Near West Side Partners/Avenues West Association/BID #10

Keith Stanley has always had an appreciation for the real estate business. His mother has been a residential real estate agent in Sherman Park, where he grew up, for 35 years. Stanley applied to the ACRE program to see if there was a way to bring more commercial development to the neighborhood.

“My takeaway was the issue is more challenging and complicated than I knew,” Stanley said. “But I was able to connect with some really outstanding and smart people within the commercial real estate industry. ACRE is the most amazing program in the universe.”

Stanley said he uses the lessons and connections he made through ACRE daily.

“I value what Dr. Mark Eppli did to change the landscape for the City of Milwaukee,” Stanley said. “He was able to look at an industry and say, ‘We need to bring in people of color.’ That takes an amazing person. If we could do that in all fields across this country, we would be a better country for it.”

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