Viewpoints: A call to focus on neighborhood development in Milwaukee

Barry Mandel

Last updated on November 23rd, 2020 at 11:25 am

Editor’s note: Mandel Group chairman and CEO Barry Mandel decided to write this piece after participating in a panel discussion on attracting development to Milwaukee’s lower income neighborhoods for the 18th annual BizTimes Milwaukee Commercial Real Estate and Development Conference, held virtually on Nov. 19.

BizTimes Milwaukee editor Andrew Weiland was kind enough to ask me to be on the Neighborhood Development panel with Kevin Newell, James Phelps and Ryan Pattee. I accepted knowing that Mandel Group has not actually participated in a neighborhood development in a “highly distressed” part of the city.

While Mandel Group has taken on difficult, technically complicated and catalytic developments, none have faced the headwinds of developing in a neighborhood riddled with crime, having safety and security concerns, unemployment, poverty, insufficient disposable income to support businesses, educational challenges for parents and children, and limited physical and mental health providers. Moreover, these conditions many times create an overhanging cloud of trauma that adversely affects these neighborhoods, eating away at the urban fabric, deteriorating the built environment and, most consequentially, dampening the spirit and connectivity of the neighborhood.

Yet, neighborhoods that have some or all of these characteristics are undervalued, as all these neighborhoods have many positive attributes to build upon, including their residents who have the will and determination to bring about positive change.

My heroes in the city and region are those who take these challenges head on, like my fellow panel members, the myriad of nonprofits, for-profits, foundations, developers, CDFIs, financial institutions, and social service organizations that painstakingly knit these neighborhoods back together. While in many cases working independently, and in the best of worlds working together, their common goal is to create a sense of place and, most importantly, replant a root system that nurtures the neighborhood, connects its residents and metabolizes an energy that mends and heals these neighborhoods in a transformative way.

While there are extraordinary challenges ahead, I am optimistic that “We,” working together, can restore our neighborhoods.

This, of course, cannot be done without addressing the elephants in the room: systemic racism, economic disparity, crime, and challenges regarding education, health, and family-sustaining jobs.

Who is “We”? It is all of us, as this is not just a Milwaukee problem, it is a national problem. It will require participation and cooperation from people with differing political leanings, as well as from federal, state, and local governments. “We” is the public sector, private sector, foundations, individual philanthropy, social service organizations, educational, and religious institutions.

At the same time, the “We” requires the same determination and extraordinary efforts of the individual neighborhoods and the residents within. Our neighborhoods are our biggest challenges and deserve the highest of priorities, while at the same time they are likely to be the source of our city’s greatest and most satisfying potential rewards.

At all levels of government, it will take bipartisanship and “political will” to augment our economic development tools and sources of funds. In my experience, timing plays a significant role in the success of any initiative. I may be completely wrong, but, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and national political divisiveness in this country, I sense that there could be a silver lining that emerges. The chaos and uncertainty that has been created has “stirred the pot” and heightened the realization for many that we must cooperate with one another to successfully address core issues that impact the health and welfare of our city, state and nation.

For Milwaukee and Wisconsin, it is imperative that we focus on neighborhood development, as it is key to repositioning Milwaukee for the future. We are at a tipping point with both challenges and opportunities. It is time to seize those opportunities and one by one diminish the challenges. We need the political will and leadership of us all. Let’s do it!!

Barry Mandel is the chairman and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Mandel Group, Inc. He can be reached at bmandel@mandelgroup.com.

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