A Cheers-like Community?
How the Historic Third Ward Association helped create a unique neighborhood.
With its pale green walls and photos of Milwaukee scenes, the office of the Historic Third Ward Association (HTWA) seems rather unobtrusive, but it’s really been the place that keeps the pulse of the neighborhood going.
Created in 1976, the HTWA is a private, non-profit whose declared mission statement is “to expand and enhance the district as a creative, livable and exciting mixed-use neighborhood while preserving its historic character.”
“We want to make the Third Ward a household name,” says Kristin Amenson, the group’s marketing and membership coordinator as well as graphic designer. Amenson has been an employee here for five years. She used to come to many Third Ward events and decided it was a place she wanted to work.
Over the past 10 years, the HTWA has been a key player in many of the neighborhood’s changes, including the opening of the Milwaukee Public Market and the Riverwalk. Both were expensive ventures, with budgets around $10 million, but have paid off for the neighborhood.
“The expressway cut us off from the rest of Downtown,” says Executive Director Nancy O’Keefe. “But the Public Market gave people a reason to drive underneath the interstate.”
O’Keefe is referring to Interstate 794 East, the north boundary of the Third Ward. The opening of the Public Market in 2005 helped draw more people past the freeway to discover the neighborhood’s historic architecture and variety of restaurants and shops. The Third Ward’s leaders hope to continue building on those strenghths.
“My personal vision? Flowers,” says O’Keefe with a laid-back, easy smile. “I would cover the entire neighborhood in flowers.”
It was 17 year when O’Keefe started here as a part-time employee, making $10 per hour. In less than two years she was promoted to Executive Director. She has since been a driving force behind many of the changes in the neighborhood.
“In the old days, I wanted this to be the holiday neighborhood,” says O’Keefe, then she trails off, losing her train of thought. She goes into her office and brings out a doll-size M&M that spits out the little chocolate candies.
“I love M&Ms. I have them all over my office,” she says, offering them to me and her staff. “You should always eat M&Ms when you lose your train of thought.”
Her style is laid-back, but each member of the office has a job and works as part of a team with the same goal in mind: To make the Third Ward the place to be.
Current projects include new streetscapes and “Brighten the Passage,” an effort to make the area underneath I-794 more pedestrian friendly and better connect the Third Ward to Downtown.
“People see our neighborhood as safe and clean,” says O’Keefe. “We take care of our neighborhood.”
To help pay for this, the HTWA oversaw creation of Business Improvement District No. 2 (BID), a quasi-governmental body with a 9-member board made up of property owners in the district. With BIDs, property owners pay an additional tax to help fund improvements within the district. BID No. 2 was created in 1988 and is the oldest operating BID in Milwaukee — and one of the most successful in the nation. O’Keefe says she frequently gets phone calls from people asking for help on how to set up a successful BID.
“If the Historic Third Ward Association went away and the BID went away, I don’t know what would happen. It wouldn’t be what it is today,” she says.
Besides such endeavors as a graffiti removal program and the maintenance of the two parking structures owned by the BID itself, the HTWA is also looking for ways to connect residents to local businesses.
“People want a Cheers like community,” says Ruth Lawson, the communications specialist for the HTWA. Ultimately, the HTWA is trying to strengthen the relationship between the ward’s residents and the businesses that operate there. Not enough residents are actively involved, Lawson and Amenson say. Out of the 1,500 residents in the Third Ward, only 60 or 70 are members of the HTWA.
Lawson explains that being a member helps keep residents in the loop. For example, when events like Summerfest are happening, the HTWA becomes the connection with police for residents trying to get home at night.
Lawson says it’s a cyclical relationship. “We need support from the neighborhood in order to be able to give it back.” Adds Amenson: “We keep trying to figure out what our residents want.”
The HTWA staff attribute much of the group’s success to both the BID and the property owners in the Third Ward. And each year, there are successfull events, such as Gallery Night and Day, that strengthen the community and the relationships HTWA is trying to build.
Though it has yet to become the holiday neighborhood O’Keefe first envisioned, she’s proud of what it has accomplished. And she still gets to celebrate the holidays. Her favorite part of her job, O’Keefe says, is “picking out the Christmas tree for Christmas in the Ward.”