Barrett in favor of redeveloping Wisconsin Ave.

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Mayor Barrett wants to "revive" Wisconsin Ave. from the Milwaukee River to MU, starting in March. Photo by Cy Kondrick / Cy.Kondrick@Marquette.edu

Tourists traveling to Milwaukee oftentimes seek beer, brats and a Brewers game — not shopping. While Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” is home to a bustling retail district, Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee is the next stop on the city’s plan to enhance its appeal.

In his State of the City address last week, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett spoke of job security, home ownership and economic issues, but placed most emphasis on the need to redevelop West Wisconsin Avenue in hopes of drawing more residents and tourists to the area.

In the address, Barrett said the city cannot continue to invest millions of dollars into the Shops of Grand Avenue, although they are central to redevelopment.

He said a disproportionate share of the city’s resources have been spent on Grand Avenue, while other areas demonstrated a greater need for financial backing.

To do this, Barrett asked Steve Chernof, a real estate attorney at Godfrey & Kahn S.C., to compile a team of stakeholders to brainstorm ways in which the area can be improved.

“I want a fresh set of eyes on the Avenue,” Barrett said in his address. “Injecting new life into Wisconsin Avenue will only add to the attractiveness of Milwaukee.”

Chernof, who worked with Barrett throughout his gubernatorial campaign, said he is not sure what ideas the team will produce, but there will be enough of them to create quality solutions.

Also aiding in the redevelopment process is the Downtown Business Improvement District 21, an organization that supports the downtown Milwaukee business community. Beth Nicols, executive director of BID, said it is important to bring unique retail opportunities to the area.

“The Avenue is a prime location to attract shoppers, seeing that a bunch of college students live just down the road,” Nicols said. “The problem is, there aren’t enough unique stores, and the exteriors of those that do exist are not attractive to shoppers or retail tenants.”

Not only are there not enough unique stores along West Wisconsin Avenue, but there are not enough stores in general.

According to a fourth quarter 2010 downtown office market report issued by the Inland Companies in Milwaukee, a real estate company, the total vacancy along the west end of the avenue is 34 percent.

In an effort to combat this, Nicols said BID is offering grants of up to $30,000 to store owners to renovate interior spaces or move their shops to the downtown area.

Although Barrett’s team begins brainstorming in March with a goal of presenting recommendations within six months, the physical act of redeveloping could prove difficult, due to the city’s economic state.

Jodie Tabak, communications director for Barrett, said the mayor is happy to have a very talented team in place, and hopeful they will come back with plans that can be implemented quickly.

Not only would redevelopment of the area attract tourists and store owners to Milwaukee, but it could draw more Marquette students as well.

Sarah Falzone, a freshman in the College of Education, said she would shop along Wisconsin Avenue more often with a better variety of stores.

“I love vintage clothing stores, which isn’t exactly downtown Wisconsin,” Falzone said. “It would be nice to not have to take a long bus trip or drive somewhere if I wanted to go shopping or needed something.”

Regarding the upkeep of the western end of the avenue, Alex Johnson, a junior in the College of Communication, said it fails to maintain the area’s scene. He also said Grand Avenue Mall does not represent Milwaukee’s contemporary culture the ways that Water Street and the Third Ward do.

“Grand Avenue is a disgrace to malls everywhere,” Johnson said. “It has the space of a palace with the utilization of a shack. … Any place with a Walgreens as the main attraction is unacceptable and undeserving of my money.”

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