From the outside, it appears as though not much is going at the Milwaukee Mall. But inside, local entrepreneurs are running businesses, and running them without a lot of outside support. Located on the triangular intersection of Fond du Lac and North Avenue, the building was originally a Sears, Roebuck & Company store, built in 1927. Local newspapers at the time reported that it brought hundreds of jobs into the area. Decades ago, the giant retailer left, and the new owner converted the building into a mall – the Milwaukee Mall, which it remains as today, with 37 separate stalls for shops on the first floor.
In the 1980s and 90s, the spot was bustling with shoppers. Since 2005, with the economic downturn and some incidents of crime, it has struggled.
City leaders and residents hope to change that. Currently, there are local entrepreneurs running businesses inside, figuring out how to make it without a lot of support.
In one stall, Michael Hodges, nicknamed Scrill, has hung the brightly colored clothes that make up his brand, Happy Hustlin. He says he came up with the name for his brand of shirts, hoodies and hats in order to make a point.
"For the people in the urban community, we tend to think that hustling has something to do with drugs, but I figured out that we hustle no matter what we’re doing it in any circumstance," notes Scrill.
Scrill is resourceful, using YouTube and Facebook to teach himself how to start pressing logos and to network to find people with skills and resources to assist him. He's also outgoing, which has helped his brand take off.
"I know a lot of people in the city, so I just started asking people to wear my shirts," Scrill explains. "I really got known by taking a lot of pictures with supporters."
Yet his goal is to do more than sell clothes. “In any form or fashion [I hope that] that the community can come together and figure out how we can lift this mall back up, because that’s what I’m trying to do," he says. "Get the people a convenient place to shop at for a low price so we can reduce some of this crime, let people know you don’t need to rob, kill and steal for this stuff.”
Scrill is joined by a fellow entrepreneurs: Pamela Campbell with her shirt pressing business, Brandon Springfield who runs a U-Haul satellite out of Scrill's shop, Chris Jones with key cutting and accessories down the hall, and a cast of other employees and small business owners in the mall, including security and clerks.
Campbell says the small shop owners inside know they’re in it together.
"A lot of black-owned businesses don’t thrive," she assesses, "so, we try to form an alliance to work with each other and help each other." The group uses word of mouth and social media to promote each other and let people know they're open.
There's also a substantial amount of dedication.
"When I first opened in this mall, I might have gotten one customer a day," shares Campbell. "Until people learned that I'm here and I'm consistently here, and I'm going to provide them with the same service I can get from any other store, but for a more affordable price, it took a while for me to build that."
"My hat comes off to them," says Tony Gibson, Chairman of the Johnson’s Park Neighborhood Association. "It takes a lot to run your own business, including personal investment of finances."
But while Gibson appreciates the shopkeepers' entrepreneurial spirit, he says there are better avenues for growing businesses than relying on social media and word of mouth, and he wants the government to do more, in terms of providing training and loans or changing rules.
"One owner that I was speaking to said that because he’s a convicted felon, he's not eligible for any type of subsidies, grants, small business loans. See, that’s gotta stop," says Gibson. "If somebody’s served their time, they've come out, they're not actively engaged in criminal activity, they need to have a chance to make it in the world."
Alderman Russell Stamper says that he's well aware that the mall could bring jobs to a struggling neighborhood. He says that the City of Milwaukee has tagged the mall for development, putting it in a 'charrette process,' a planning session in which urban planners and residents brainstorm on a development vision.
He says the city aims to have a planning team in place by spring, and he envisions the historic building eventually housing café shops, a restaurant, condos and possibly MATC.
Stamper also says that he is a proponent of "building from within" to empower local businesspeople, and he wants the renovations to mean good things for the entrepreneurs already located in the mall. "We want them involved. They have a business that they’re keeping afloat, so they are very important to the development of that area," he says.
As these plans unfold, shirt-presser Pamela Campbell says that being her own boss, while a lot of work, has been worth it. "I’ve been able to take care of my bills here and my bills at home. When I go home lay down at night, I feel good about my days," she says.