Viewpoints: Downtown Milwaukee needs businesses to return

Robert Barr
Robert Barr

Last updated on April 6th, 2022 at 11:28 am

I am president of Continuum Architects + Planners, and several months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic my business partners and I purchased and restored the old George Watts building at 751 N. Jefferson St. in downtown Milwaukee, and moved our company in.

Since that time we have kept our office open while following all city and state mandates as well as all CDC guidelines on masking and social distancing. We have allowed our employees the flexibility of working from home when they felt it necessary for their health and wellbeing. We have done all we can to continue to patronize the other business in our neighborhood.

It has been a lonely go. For a year I could have parked my car in the middle of the street and I don’t think anyone would have noticed.

I fully understand all the talk about the future of work, options for a hybrid workplace model, etc. and all that is fine but what has been lost in this conversation is the impact on our city center. We all know what happens when downtowns die. The impact on economics, entertainment, livability, quality of life, the arts, city revenues, tourism, etc. are well known and have been seen repeatedly in cities across the country through decades of economic cycles.

Watching the downtown lay empty for so long has been heartbreaking. I understand why most walked away but I have always felt we were not doing enough to hold our ground to support our neighbors and neighborhood. The masking and distancing were difficult and awkward but manageable with a bit of effort.

It is now long past the time for our city’s business to step up and return to downtown. If it does not happen soon it may never happen.

What I mean by this is that we, the business community, have walked away, essentially abandoning our place in downtown. We have left a huge void, and voids do not stay empty.

Downtown’s void has rapidly filled with crime. It is hard to believe how ubiquitous car thefts and break-ins have become. I know it is different now because I have worked in our downtown for the last 30+ years with these issues being rare. In the last 12 months alone, I and some of our employees have had break-in and attempted thefts of our cars occur, a family member actually filmed a group of people brazenly break into and steal their own car; the thieves fully aware they were being recorded and did not seem to care.

I was sitting in a neighborhood restaurant when a pair of thieves came in and forcibly stole money from the cashier and ran out; the manager refused to call police because they said there was no point. My parking structure’s floor sparkles with broken window glass. I was about to say thank God it has not yet become blatantly violent when I remembered the recent shootings of our city police officers. I am embarrassed that it had slipped my mind.

There is a simple solution here. We do not need more police, more programs, more politicians, we just need to come back!

Come back and be here. Occupy our downtown. Use it. Do our business here. Do business with your neighbors here. We all like to believe that our businesses are important, vital parts of our city’s success and they are. We all believe that a safe and vibrant city is crucial to our business success and it is.

Let’s prove it. We need to get back downtown and refill the void we created.

Robert Barr is the president and principal of Milwaukee-based Continuum Architects + Planners S.C.

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