Remarkable Milwaukee

A discussion without limits

By - Jan 31st, 2012 09:06 pm

One half of the “living room” round table at Remarkable Milwaukee. Photos by Benjamin Wick for ThirdCoast Digest.

Historic Milwaukee Inc.’s creative discussion looked more like a play than a panel on Monday, but the issues laid out on stage at the Pabst Theater bared some very real changes happening within the city’s borders.

Remarkable Milwaukee was an experimental call for conversation in an era where partisan bickering has marred public debate; an effort to circumvent the “limitless limitations we put on our thinking,” said Anna-Marie Opgenorth, Historic Milwaukee‘s executive director.

A moment of “Witt” from the audience.

Sitting on Victorian-style furniture with cocktails in hand, fourteen of Milwaukee’s creative and business leaders contested the city’s future, broaching topics from segregation to the incorporation of art and design in real estate. Ultimately, the premise was clear: Milwaukee’s younger generation is redefining the city as a vibrant, livable and cool city to inhabit.

It’s a far cry from the days when young people married by 22 had children and headed for the suburbs, said Gary Grunau, an urban developer.

“Younger people see the city differently,” said Gary Witt, executive director of The Pabst Theater Foundation. “They’re going to see and focus on what the beauty of Milwaukee is. That’s why younger people are flooding into and using the city. They are not scared away by the old methodology.”

Jill Morin, author and former principal of Kahler Slater, said the changes young folks are bringing to Milwaukee are inevitable.

“I think what is exciting, is (the change) is being generated by young entrepreneurs, creative talent who have realized that we have a lot of big city amenities and that it is easier to live here than many other places,” she said “They didn’t wait for the (Greater Milwaukee Committee) to say “We’ve blessed this area of the city. Now go and develop it.” They’re just doing it.”

How to pursue development, both public and private, was a hot topic throughout the discussion, especially regarding West Wisconsin Avenue and the elephant in the room, the Grand Avenue Mall.

Angela Damiani, vice president of ART Milwaukee was optimistic saying the creative agencies, like Spreenkler and MiKE, who moved offices to the Plankinton building are bringing energy and vitality back to the mall, something she says not enough people know about.

“It could be the epicenter for creativity and innovation,” she said.

But former mayor John Norquist insisted the American shopping mall was a dead concept. Norquist said businesses owners should come out of their shell and back to the streets, something that could be made easier with street curbs and streetcars.

Artist Reginald Baylor at the Turner Hall dinner later that evening.

“I think Milwaukee needs to embrace urbanism,” he said.

That includes not only embracing public art and design but also diversity, whether that be age, sex, or race, said artist Reginald Baylor.

“You can develop downtown but if you don’t develop the inner city, you create isolation,” Baylor said. “That’s like having the meat without the potatoes.”

In a state of self-deprecation and gentle ribbing, many of the panelists urged the city’s “old, white men” to tune into the message young people are giving.

It is a message restauranteur Joe Bartolotta said he heard loud and clear when he began to see his patrons aging. The restaurant group recently opened The Rumpus Room to target the younger demographic.

“You have to be nimble and adjust to what they’re saying,” said Bartolotta. “How to tap into that, how to create that environment that they want to be a part of is the key to the growth of the city.”

The next step is to get businesses on board, said John Kersey, executive vice president of Zilber Ltd.

“We need to get the CEOs to recognize the value of being downtown,” he said. “Nobody goes to downtown Manhattan because it’s the cheapest.”

Witt agreed. “Somehow all these people that are going to restaurants, bars, and clubs and shows — that message has to trickle up,” including to Milwaukee’s political leaders, he said.

 Photo intern Benjamin Wick covered both events for us in images; take a look through our slideshow below or visit our Flickr set here.

Participants in “Remarkable Milwaukee” included: Joe Bartolotta, The Bartolotta Restaurant Group, Reginald Baylor, Artist and Partner at Plaid Tuba, Bruce Block, Chair, Real Estate Practice at Reinhart Law, Sara Daleiden, Artist, MKE-LAX: Importing Milwaukee to Los Angeles Initiative, Angela Damiani, VP Art Milwaukee, Mike Eitel, Co-Owner of Lowlands Group, James Godsil, Co-founder Sweetwater Organics, Gary Grunau, Developer and Principal at Grucongroup, John Gurda, Milwaukee Historian and Author, John Kersey, Executive Vice President of Zilber, Ltd., Grace La, Founding Principal of La Dallman, Jill Moran, Former CEO Kahler Slater and Author, John Norquist, CEO of Center for New Urbanism, Former Milwaukee Mayor, and Gary Witt, Executive Director of the Pabst Theater Foundation.

For more on the creative agencies at the Shops of Grand Avenue, check out TCD’s Know Milwaukee video series, featuring six businesses involved in the “Creativity Works Here” program.

0 thoughts on “Remarkable Milwaukee: A discussion without limits”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good review! I like the emphasis on young people, which definitely was a major theme of the “conversation.” However, I respectfully beg to differ on whether the discussion was “without limits.” For a different take on the event, check out my post:

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s easy to avoid partisan bickering when you’re surrounded by a yes-men Collective.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is the second article that I have read about this event, and I’m still not hearing any real ideas – just vague statements like “It could be the epicenter for creativity and innovation,”. I don’t want to judge an event that I didn’t attend, so I’m asking – were there any concrete plans suggested? Anything that could realistically be presented to investors and/or small business owners looking to open something new?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Milwaukee’s future will always be hobbled as long as power remains peculiarly vested in the hands of white-flight suburbanites who abandoned the city 30-40 years ago, absolve themselves of responsibility for the craters they left behind, and sit on the sidelines mutually reinforcing their shared prejudices and kvetching ignorantly to each other about how dangerous and awful Milwaukee is. They’re the employers who would rather hire a white man with a record than a black man with a degree, the voters who unfailingly support every kind of mean-spirited public policy attack on Milwaukee, the right-wing thugs who champion voter suppression and punishing the poor, and the self-deluded suburban isolationists who oppose any kind of regional solutions to transit, parks, sewers or schools or highways. As long as that old guard see themselves as separate from Milwaukee – except when it comes to launching power grabs on successful operations like the airport or enjoying recreational amenities such as the Brewers, the Bucks, the MSO and Summerfest – we’re gettin’ nowhere.

  5. Anonymous says:

    While I love what they’re talking about, I am frustrated at the same time because it feels that all anyone does is talk. They’ve been saying the same thing since I’ve moved here to go to school and it’s the same demographic. Apart from Norquist, Gurda, and Baylor, no one really had anything new to say. While our downtown core has a life, the rest of the city no so much. How are our Main Street initiatives going? The world of downtown is much different than say the world of those on Burleigh or Silver City. Our city is so fragmented and there are really big critical problems that we need to solve and solve them now. I like the focus on keeping young people, it’s been a problem here but truthfully, that’s a problem everywhere.

    We need to keep the focus on making the city a viable option for everyone and not just a certain demographic. For example there’s a wealth of knowledge that retirees/empty nesters/professionals, sick of the suburbs and moving back downtown, that needs to be tapped as well. We also need people in office that absolutely love this city and love what they do.

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