Most Milwaukeeans are familiar with the recent construction downtown: the new Bucks arena, the streetcar and the Northwestern Mutual building.
But just a bit to the west, in the Marquette University neighborhood and beyond, Milwaukee’s near west side is hoping to revitalize its housing and business districts. And it takes vision and investment to bring new life to a neighborhood.
Vliet Street is a major commercial corridor for the near west side — it leads from the northern edge of downtown west to Wauwatosa. And people who live in the Martin Drive area, near Washington Park, see the corridor as a key place to develop retail with places like Pete's Pops, a gourmet popsicle shop.
Pete’s Pops opened over the summer, and to many that signaled a step in the right direction. Pete Cooney is the owner and founder of the specialty shop. He makes popsicles in a range of flavors, including sweet corn, blackberry swirl, avocado and Thai iced tea.
"We just try to buy the best fruit, and then from there we add a little bit of our homemade simple syrups and other spices or seasonings or twists, and that’s what makes our popsicles," he says.
Cooney says the neighborhood is a great fit for his business.
“We love Washington Park. I love Vliet Street. It’s a little bit more pedestrian friendly than the north/south corridors like 27th and 35th streets," he says. "We want to make it more pedestrian friendly.”
Cooney was able to open up his popsicle shop, in part, because he was the 2016 winner of Rev Up MKE. That’s a competition similar to the TV show Shark Tank — entrepreneurs make a live pitch for funds to help get their business off the ground. The winner then makes a commitment to open up in the area.
Down the street from Pete's Pops, there's another new business: PWD Computers. The company provides graphic design, digital surveillance and computer repairs. While it moved to the neighborhood in 2017, owner Antwon Perkins had been running the business for more than 15 years in another location.
“I researched the area, and it seemed to be a good area in regards to demographics. There’s a lot of businesses in the area. It’s a mixed, diverse area," he explains. "You have a nice traffic from Wauwatosa going into downtown.”
Once he moved to Vliet Street, he got a few grants to help spruce up the space, both inside and outside. “The remodeling of the building in general, as you can see we added drop ceilings, floors, the look of the building from a daycare to more of an office-like look," he says. "It was really a transformation.” Now, after getting new awnings and lighting, Perkins says he’s onto a new goal — opening a multi-use computer lab — to train and develop people in the neighborhood.
Back at Pete’s Pops, I talked to Keith Stanley. He's the executive director of Near West Side Partners, a nonprofit created to revitalize the area. Stanley points to changes at other businesses and organizations dotting the road, including Colorwheel painting services and the nonprofit Hmong American Friendship Association. He says Vliet Street is one of seven commercial corridors on the near west side.
'They’re the economic engine for a local community," he says. "So, whether it’s corner stores, coffee shops, bookstores, pizza parlors, these businesses are the lifeblood of community. They usually hire locally, they give locally and they support locally."
And, Stanley says, a number of businesses in the Vliet Street corridor have spruced up with new signs and facades. "Those funds have come from Business Improvement District number 10. In fact, I would say that we’ve spent more money on Vliet Street than we’ve spent probably on any other street in the past several years.”
Stanley says all the near west side’s more than 350 businesses pay into the business improvement district. That includes five major anchor corporations and institutions in the area — who put up a significant portion based on their square footage.
He has high hopes the corridor will continue to lure new retail, restaurants and housing. “There’s a long way to go. I don’t want to paint a picture that everything is rosy and that we don’t have our issues,” he says. But Stanley adds that interested parties and donors are getting involved, resulting in some cool opportunities for development on the near west side.