Bruce Murphy

Groundwork Milwaukee Shutting Down? 

17-year-old nonprofit helped create and maintain 100 community gardens in city.

By - May 21st, 2024 08:07 pm
Damien DeBuhr. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Damien DeBuhr. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The nonprofit community group Groundwork Milwaukee has announced it is moving toward a likely shutdown of all operations, after more than 17 years in operation.

“Starting immediately Groundwork Milwaukee will be hitting pause on most of our operations,” said a letter to the community by the group’s executive director Damien DeBuhr. “We have been wrestling with rising costs and dwindling access to resources over the past several years” and “we are no longer in a position to sustain operations in the way our community has come to expect.”

“At the end of the month, staff will be laid-off. This is an incredibly difficult decision, one we don’t take lightly,” the letter said. “Sadly, the layoff is an essential step to help stretch our financial resources as we responsibly transition and transform our work.”

DeBuhr told Urban Milwaukee the group hopes to “transition” some of its services to other groups. It’s “not a shut down,” he said. “The next steps for Groundwork Milwaukee are unclear, but there are many potential pathways.”

Perhaps its best known work was helping to create and support 100 community gardens in the city maintained by residents. City officials have supported and praised the creation of such parks, calling them “healing spaces” that turn blight into beauty.  Groundwork also “played a major role in the redevelopment of the Kinnickinnic watershed,” its website notes.

Groundwork Milwaukee is part of a network of 21 mostly urban nonprofits in the nation affiliated with Groundwork USA, which was started in the 1990s as a partnership between the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. It was modeled after the Groundwork Trust, which was founded in 1982 in the United Kingdom to help revitalize abandoned industrial sites in northern England and eventually became a network of 52 locally based groups dedicated to reclaiming and beautifying run-down areas.

The growth of similar projects in the U.S. comes from a recognition that predominantly low-income and minority urban areas suffer disproportionately from toxic brownfields, air pollution, a lack of green spaces and heat islands.

The annual federal tax forms for Groundwork Milwaukee suggest the group’s revenues fluctuated markedly, from a budget of about $507,000 in 2020 to $193,000 in 2021 and $678,000 in 2022.  The group had a small, five-member board including the executive director.

Groundwork was heavily dependent on grants, including federal grants, with some support from Groundworks USA, state and foundation grants. But it faced the classic problem for non-profits: it’s easier to apply for grants for new projects than to sustain current operations. “Everybody wants to build the shining thing, but for the maintenance of an organization there isn’t much funding,” DeBuhr said.

In addition to DeBuhr, the Groundworks website lists a staff of six.

“Our focus right now is figuring out how to transition the staff in a soft way so that the work can continue,” DeBuhr said. “I’ve been talking to people and it’s just been shock and sadness about our situation.”

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Categories: Environment

One thought on “Groundwork Milwaukee Shutting Down? ”

  1. BigRed81 says:

    This isn’t right! Groundwork Milwaukee is certainly deserving of public funding.
    WEDC needs to step up. Unfortunately, they focus on “corporate welfare” and lack accountability.

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