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Walnut Way Incubator Strives to Boost Business, Nurture Neighbors

A low-income neighborhood on Milwaukee's near north side turns a corner Friday. Residents and planners are celebrating the grand opening of the Innovation and Wellness Commons in Lindsay Heights.

Activists have implemented numerous improvements in the area in recent years. But the Commons is their first commercial venture.

The Walnut Way Conservation Corp. has spearheaded efforts to turn vacant lots into mini orchards in Lindsay Heights. This summer it unveiled a pocket parkin one of the lots. And the organization has worked with neighbors and other partners to restore homes, or build from scratch. 

Credit The Juice Kitchen
The Juice Kitchen sells a variety of fresh juices and smoothies

Yet it wanted to do more to revitalize the area, creating a site to advance community wellness and to launch businesses. So planners cooked up the idea of the Innovation and Wellness Commons at 16th and North, and secured funding to help get it off the ground.

"This place has been vacant many years since I've known it. I'm all for improving in my life, in the community," says Tanya Holly, a home health care worker who lives nearby. She attended the groundbreaking for the new development back in January.

Another onlooker also was hopeful. Dwayne Bost is a retired tool and die worker who lives just west of Walnut Way. "I think it'll be great for the area, to help revitalize the area. I know we have had some down years," he says.

Credit Michelle Maternowski
The Juice Kitchen's tin ceiling tiles mimic the former tavern's original decor

Beginning Friday, Bost, Holly and others can see how the effort turned out by visiting the Juice Kitchen. It's one of several operations inside a historic tavern, revamped as Phase 1 of the Innovation and Wellness Commons.

The juice bar's bright storefront has high ceilings with tin tiles, in a nod to the building's heritage. Shiny stainless steel counters and sinks await workers who'll create juices, crafted by co-owners MaanaanSabir and his wife JoAnne. They'll serve "about seven juices...four smoothies and 2-3 hot drinks and three juice shots," Sabir says.

The Sabirs are firm believers in the health benefits of juices, and they're eager to share their passion with neighborhood residents.

"Our goal is to do porch-to-porch and find out who they are, what they're about, and bring them in to the doors and educate them about who and what is the Juice Kitchen," Sabir says.

Credit Ben Slowey
Outpost recently opened a small operation in the Innovation and Wellness Commons

As for the Juice Kitchen's immediate neighbors -- those right in the building -- they're Outpost, the local natural food grocer, which recently opened its small storefront. The Milwaukee Center for Independence runs a kitchen for job training in the building. And the Fondy farmers market, a couple blocks away, has moved its offices here. 

Sabir says together, the organizations provide an important service to the community. "You know, this is a food desert and we have a call to provide a service as human beings, and we stepped up and did it and we're responding to that particular call," Sabir says.

While the businesses are settled in and ready for the new venture, they actually hope not to stay forever.

"This Innovation and Wellness Commons is an incubator. Hopefully we can outgrow these digs where people can take our spots and run with what we laid out," Sabir says.

Bigger "digs" could be on the parking lot next door, where planners envision a larger outpost and Aurora Health Care Services. Planners are seeking funding for Phase 2 of the Innovation and Wellness Commons.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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