The Riverwest Public House
The Riverwest neighborhood has a long and storied tradition of being a tight-knit community, known as a hub for creatives and social activists alike. The businesses that call Riverwest home, from cafés to auto body shops, tend to push the envelope in regards to how business is conducted as well, with a strong commitment to collaboration and a “buy local” ethos.
Nestled along the Milwaukee river in the city’s northeast side, Riverwest seems to thrive on a collective urge to provide creative business opportunities, nurturing food and housing cooperatives over the last several decades. In the last ten years, the neighborhood has welcomed similar ventures, such as The Riverwest Co-op, a food cooperative (and cafe since 2004) that opened to the public in 2001 in the former Schlitz Tied House. The co-op was organized by a small group of volunteers and community residents, along with members of the Riverwest Workers Buying Club. The Riverwest Co-op now possesses over 1300 members and 60 volunteers, according to their website.
Expanding upon that cooperative concept and taking it one step further is The Riverwest Public House. In a city dominated by taverns, The Public House is a rare feat in today’s society; it’s one of the only co-op run bars in the nation.
Located in the former Riverwest Commons (and later, Saylece’s bar) space at 815 E. Locust St., the project was spearheaded by a board of nine directors as well as neighborhood residents, and the bar itself is operated by the Workers’ Collective who oversee daily operations.
The Public House was first incorporated in October of 2010, and a lease was signed in December of the same year. Raffles and pot-luck dinners were held to sell memberships, raise funds and increase awareness. In the ensuing months, the formerly dank interior has been remodeled with the help of volunteers eager to show support and lend their skills to the project. From tasks as menial as sweeping to much larger jobs like painting and construction, neighborhood residents have donated their time, materials and expertise, adding a personal touch to the tavern. Large prints from local artists cover some of the wall space, echoing the community-based social activist sentiment that is at the core of the project.
The Public House is all about the communal way of living, so there is no technical “boss” that the directors take orders from. Instead, each board member shares their opinions and thoughts in the shaping of the business. On top of the Worker’s Collective and the Board of Directors, the countless volunteers who pitched in physically and monetarily also aided in the inception of the Public House.
Board member Shea Schachameyer has been along for journey since September, and is thrilled that her neighborhood is home to Milwaukee’s first co-op bar.
“[The bar] is an exciting community endeavor,” she says. The bar, which is set to have its grand opening week April 3-8, is open to the public, and also features memberships ($40 for a regular member, $200 for a lifetime member), which allows members to receive discounts and attend special events.
Public House directors and workers feel that the bar can help bring some more variety to the already distinct Riverwest neighborhood. “It allows for a wider sense of diversity,” says board member A.J. Segneri. By building a stage, the bar provides an area that allows for events and live shows to take place.
In addition to supporting its creative neighbors, a primary tenant of the Public House’s mission is to support local businesses. The flagship spirits are that of Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Distillery, makers of several award-winning liquors and spirits, and Lakefront beer is always on tap.
It’s this kind of support and collaboration that allows cooperatives to become successful; they help to not only better themselves, but to better the populace at large. The founding principle behind this concept is the collaboration of the community to create a successful business model that both engages and enriches those involve. The Public House hopes to hold that principle true — one (locally-brewed) beer at a time.
Ed. note: Portions of this story has been updated for clarification and to reflect correct information.