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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

More Than A Bar: Riverwest Public House Builds Community

Marti Mikkelson
The Riverwest Public House is one of only a few bars in the country set up as a coop.

This week’s Bubbler Talkinquiry comes from Beth Gehred. She wanted to know how Milwaukee's public tavern is doing.

The tavern Gehred is referring to is the Riverwest Public House Cooperative, located on E. Locust Street in the Riverwest neighborhood. 

On the day WUWM's Marti Mikkelson and Gehred met at the packed bar, a couple of young men were playing dice, while several dozen other people were socializing with friends.

Alex Brower says the Public House is one of only two bars of its kind in the country. Inside it looks like any other tavern; however, the bar is set up as a cooperative and is run democratically.

“You can come into this business and actually do something," he says. "Unlike if you go to Tyson Prepared Foods and try to change the way that they operate, you won’t get anywhere... Here, it might take some time because you have to get other people on board... so it will take more time to make a change but you can make a change here."

Brower is one of 500 members the co-op says it has, which actually means he’s one of 500 owners of the bar. Members pay $40 a year to join or $200 for a lifetime membership.

DaoPhakeovilay purchased her stake in the business a couple years ago and says there are many benefits. “You do get a say in the governance of the organization itself. As a Milwaukeean, I like to drink and you get a dollar off every drink. You get invited to the potlucks and the different events and also just to feel an ownership of this wonderful organization that you’re just super proud of.”

Phakeovilay says besides being a member, she also sits on the Public House Board of Directors. It decides what kind of entertainment to bring in; an eclectic mix of artists you won’t find anywhere else.

“As a person of color, I’m happy with the diverse musical acts," she says. "Milwaukee has a pretty big black and brown population but that population doesn’t always or necessarily feel safe performing in spaces in the city and this is a very respectful space.”

The Public House opened in 2011. Founding member Wendy Mesich says the neighborhood had seen success with other smaller co-ops, and the climate seemed ripe to create this large one.

“A group of us wanted to form a cooperative alliance in a neighborhood of co-ops that already existed but also wanted to help propagate more co-ops in the neighborhood in the city. So, we’d have our meetings and then we would go sit at a bar. So, then we thought maybe this is what we should do,” Mesich says.

Mesich says the Public House recently hosted a huge five year anniversary party. It also helped raise money for the place. She says fundraisers and donations from neighborhood residents help keep the place afloat. The goal is to start more co-ops with the money that comes in to the bar.

“Right now we pay the bills, but we’re getting to the point where we have a storage of capital to fund other co-ops. It hasn’t become a reality yet, but we’re close,” she says.

Mesich says in the next year, the Riverwest Cooperative Association will help open a credit union in Riverwest, and start a co-op for homeless LGBT residents. And with the upcoming election season, the Public House also hosts candidate forums.

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Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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