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Listen MKE is an initiative created by WUWM, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee PBS and the Milwaukee Public Library to help Milwaukee's north side residents get the information they want and need.

Listen MKE: The Impact Of COVID-19 On Milwaukee-Area Businesses

Screenshot / WUWM
Teran Powell (top left) moderated a conversation with business leaders Alyssa Neff (top right), Gaulien Smith (bottom right) and Clifton Phelps (bottom left).

WUWM has been partnering with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee PBS and the Milwaukee Public Library on an initiative called Listen MKE. Its goal: help north side residents get the information they want and need.

Even before COVID-19, minority owned businesses were more likely to fail than others. It’s been a year since Wisconsin, along with states across the country shut down over fears about the spread of the virus. COVID-19 has added more stress for a lot of businesses.

Gaulien Smith is the owner of Gee’s Clippers, Clifton Phelps is the vice president of business development for JCP Construction and Alyssa Neff is the owner of The Space MKE.

They all came together for a conversation about how COVID-19 has impacted their businesses. This Listen MKE conversation was hosted by WUWM’s Teran Powell as a part of our series on minority business owners — COVID Earners.

Smith says the pandemic has taken away more than just customers in the seats.

For him, the biggest aspect of his barber shop that the pandemic has taken away are the conversations. He says coming into shop and getting to talk is a form of therapy for some of his clients and that he can't wait to get back to getting to connect with people every day.

"A lot of guys, this is their country club, if you will. You know, this is their time to let all their hair down and see what feedback that they can get from the dissection of announcers on ESPN that they might be listening to and they draw their own conclusions and come to the barber shop and try to see what they can, see how many guys they can, uh, get excited. So you know, I miss that," he says.

Neff agrees that not getting to be physically with other people has been a real loss for her business.

"For what normal would look like, that would literally look like us being able to collaborate in an enclosed environment again," she says.

Warmer weather has allowed artists to do some collaboration safely outdoors, but Neff says the weather of Milwaukee just doesn't allow for that most of the year.

Phelps says for his business, things will start to feel normal when he starts seeing worksites returning back to work. But when it comes to personal interaction, he doesn't expect people to revert back to their pre-pandemic comfort levels anytime soon.

"I don't think we'll ever get back to 100% normal, especially mentally, um, but what I think we can do is start to figure out how we can drive our profits back to where they need to be, safely," he says.

All three of them agree that the pandemic has given them time to explore parts of their business that they never would have considered.

Neff says she now closes on Mondays to make sure she has a day to mentally rest from the work she is doing, something she had a hard time finding time to do before COVID-19. Smith now has a written mission statement that he has placed on his wall to help tell his community where he wants to take his business.

"I think we've all just kind of grown and figured out how to kind of reinvent ourselves as business owners," says Phelps.

Teran Powell joined WUWM in the fall of 2017 as the station’s very first Eric Von Broadcast Fellow. She became WUWM's race and ethnicity reporter in 2018.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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