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Milwaukee turns unrest into opportunity for business owners

In 2016, civil unrest in Milwaukee left a stretch of the Sherman Park neighborhood extensively damaged and economically harmed. Businesses in the area, including BMO Harris Bank, were set on fire, causing over $5.8 million in property damage. Now, the city is making an investment in the same neighborhood to turn it into a place of burgeoning economic opportunity.

The Sherman Phoenix, the new name of the burned building, is being redeveloped through city financing and collective investment. The approach marks an innovative combination that demonstrates how community and government can work together. The $2.5 million investment derives its strength from the innovative approach taken by stakeholders, with money being received from philanthropists, foundations, and traditional investors alike. This collaborative method ensures that the building is a true community partnership that serves those who live there. In addition to the money being raised, Milwaukee also created a Tax Incremental District to help development of the building, which enabled $225,000 to be invested in the project with the possibility to add more resources in the future. The Tax Incremental District makes it possible for the city to make money from an increase in the property’s value, and assists in jumpstarting the development of projects like these. In addition, neighborhood residents are also being given the opportunity to invest in the property and become owners of it. This opportunity to take ownership will give residents a unique sense of pride and accomplishment in helping turn the neighborhood’s fortunes around.

An appropriate name for a project quite literally rising out of the ashes, the Phoenix will be repurposed to include space for at least 12 local businesses. However, the project has made a commitment that goes further than just serving economic needs; the spaces will all be utilized by entrepreneurs of color. 12 black-owned businesses have already committed to be tenants, and their businesses range from food and wellness services to the arts and culture. All of the tenants are dedicated to hiring locally and strengthening the local economy, after what co-developer Joanne Sabir said was “many, many years of disinvestment.” Sabir continued, saying that among the Sherman Park residents there is a “shared desire to become a part of the economy, to be able to have vibrant spaces that reflect the diversity of the community.”

Milwaukee is on ICIC’s list of inner cities, meaning many of its entrepreneurs experience barriers to accessing resources related to business education, capital, and mentorship. However, projects like the Sherman Phoenix are a large step forward for the city and the community in making space and resources available for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. Innovative projects like this show the power a community and local government have in spurring development, and that even in the wake of unfortunate events they can utilize new and innovative methods to turn neighborhoods into places of opportunity for business owners.

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