By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Aug 19, 2003 at 5:29 AM

Our "big city feel" and small town attitudes help make Milwaukee a more close-knit and genuine city. The seven degrees of typical separation in Milwaukee is often times reduced to two or less. So, it's no wonder that every now and then we conduct a "Milwaukee Talks" with one of our friends. Beth Nicols, head cheerleader and executive director at Milwaukee Downtown, Business Improvement District #21, is one of these friends. More than a friend, Milwaukee Downtown is a strategic partner, advertiser, web design client and advocate of

Nicols' spirit and collaborative style have helped transform downtown from its depths in the later 1990's to its current renewal -- just take a trip down Wells Street, through the Historic Third Ward or to the Milwaukee Art Museum and you'll see the re-birth happening. Nicols and her crew are just a few of the many people that make downtown happen each and every day. Here's her story. Enjoy our "Milwaukee Talks" with Beth Nicols.

OMC: Please give us the "Beth Nicols story."

Beth Nicols: I was raised in the city of Milwaukee. I just finished enjoying my 30s (Nicols turned 40 on May 6, 2003). I have two children who are the most wonderful things that have ever happened to me. Shawna is going into her junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is there on a basketball scholarship, phenomenal human being. My son Justin, 17, will be a senior at Pius XI High School and another great person. My kids have been such a blessing in my life because they really help me focus on my direction and goals -- they have been an inspiration to me. My grandmother was another truly inspirational person in my life.

OMC: How about your up bringing?

BN: I went to private grade school and public high school. I am a graduate of Solomon Juneau High School and attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I started my family at a very young age. My early work experience, as a kid, was dry cleaning, waitressing, bartending, cashiering and my interest in politics started with political involvement because of my grandfather. I worked for the Common Council for eight years to start my career -- worked for the president of the Common Council for four of those eight years, who was John Kalwitz at the time.

OMC: What was next?

BN: When I left the City of Milwaukee, I started my own company -- a company called "At Your Service" and I did fundraising and consulting. I also did some work for private business in terms of media, PR, employee handbook establishment and dealing with purveyors. As part of my fundraising efforts, I got hooked up with State Senator Barbara Ulichny and did some work with her. I did that for about one year and then there was an opening at the Department of City Development (DCD) in Economic Development working out of the commissioner's office so I went over there for a year. Next, I was the executive director of The Westown Association for five years, and now at Milwaukee Downtown.

OMC: Did you know what you wanted to do when you were a kid?

BN: Well in sixth grade I thought for sure I was going be a nun. I was pretty certain about that. And when I hit high school I really, really thought I wanted to get involved in business but, then I became more interested in education when I worked with learning disabled children. I went from wanting to be a nun to wanting to be a teacher and then recognized as I got older that I definitely wanted to have a family and roots and I knew that I wanted a job working with the general public.

I always thought it would be so great to be able to get a grant to be able to just people-watch and see how they interact on city sidewalks. To research what makes people stop and walk into a store or what makes them stop at a corner to talk and feel comfortable. I knew I needed to be in a position where I was working with people and helping to make my "little corner" of the world a better place to be in.

OMC: Now your "little corner" of the world is downtown Milwaukee. Can you explain for someone who has no background knowledge of your organization what it is all about?

BN: Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District 21 represents 120 square blocks in downtown Milwaukee that has 400 property owners and several thousand businesses. This is an initiative that was started by local property owners to enhance the quality of life in downtown Milwaukee and make downtown more competitive as a destination for people to live, work, learn and play. We provide quality of life services -- public services ambassadors, clean sweep ambassadors, graffiti removal, landscaping, and work on parking and transportation issues. We work through collaboration -- working with all the other downtown groups -- in order to achieve our goals to make Milwaukee a true destination. We also do the Holiday Lights Festival and put on, in conjunction with other partners, the Downtown Open House and Expo.

OMC: What do you say to someone who hasn't been downtown in five years?

BN: I know through market research and studying the six county area that more and more people are coming downtown. There are a lot of reasons people like to come downtown -- to shop and to dine, for recreation purposes and sporting events, arts, culture, they love the built environment. That includes the historic preservation of the buildings that we've done. It includes the river, it includes the lakefront, it includes the parks in downtown Milwaukee, but, also the reality is that you have to look at what you can do to improve your environment and to provide better customer service.

Some of the critical issues that have been identified that we know we have to be focused on are parking, transportation, accessibility and the additional need for more retail. And of course, with the huge housing movement that is occurring in downtown Milwaukee, I am happy to say that more affordable housing is going to be available in downtown Milwaukee very soon.

OMC: Do you think there is a perception that there is more crime or that it is unsafe in downtown Milwaukee compared to other outlying areas?

BN: What we found, again through market analysis, tells us that people feel safe in downtown Milwaukee during the day. There is a slight feeling of concern for safety in the evening hours. But, if you ask that very same question of any person if they were out walking about in the evening, I don't care if you're in a cul-de-sac area, in a suburban area or an urban area -- you are not going to feel 100 percent comfortable at night and you may not feel 100 percent safe.

So there is a perception that the downtown might not be safe but, surprisingly, enough that was not the number one area concern that came up. People were more concerned about parking than they are about feeling safe. Another area that came up that rated even higher than the concern for safety was lack of knowledge of things to do. We are addressing that through PR, Web sites, brochures and creative word-of-mouth marketing.

OMC: Let's talk about parking.

BN: We have created "The Alliance for Downtown Parking and Transportation." The Alliance includes representation from city, county, private sector, neighborhood organizations, GMCVB and the list goes on and on. We brought this group of people together again because of these perceptions. We know where to park, we know what is affordable and we know comparatively speaking parking in downtown Milwaukee isn't that bad. Monthly parking prices really are not driven by the market, at this point yet, they're pretty affordable relatively speaking.

I think that the Alliance has been successful in starting to do some homework and some research, specifically parking programs that are working in other cities, looking at case studies, addressing those priority issues. We have found that people want better customer service, they want information, they want to be able to access parking, they want to be able to know how much they will have to pay for it and they also want to know that from an enforcement perspective it is going to be fair. They also want convenience.

Is there some better technology that we could be implementing that is going to be more customer-friendly? Can you use a keypad that you load up at the local police department or down at City Hall somewhere? Can you use your ATM card or your cell phone to buy meter time? And if you pay your ticket the day you get it, maybe there is an incentive, maybe it's $5 cheaper? We need to do a better job of marketing and promoting what we have got downtown. The Mayor has done an excellent job of really cramming in as many on-street parking places as he can, and the City has really improved its parking Web site too and will soon help expand I'd like to look at more two-hour parking meters as opposed to one hour.

OMC: Please comment on other transportation issues: cabs, rail, trolleys?

BN: It is frustrating for some people who are not familiar with Milwaukee if they are out for dinner around Water Street or Jefferson Street and they can't understand why they just can't hail a cab. They can ask a public service ambassador but, I understand when you walk down the street at any major hotel in downtown Milwaukee there is a cab stand. At Greyhound there is a cab stand too, so they are available. We did try an initiative, several years ago, in conjunction with the City and North Water Street, to have a Mass Trans Association, a valet cab service available on Water Street. Unfortunately the market was not ready for that kind of a cab stand.

OMC: What about the Trolleys?

BN: The Loop Group is committed to working toward saving at least some of the trolleys. We have jumped our first hurdle by getting the County Board Transportation and Public Works committee to change language in the resolution that would sell all of the trolleys to save four of the trolleys. The Loop Group is focused on raising funds to provide a seasonal trolley loop for at least three years beginning in May of 2004. We are about half way there but we still need to raise approximately $90,000 per year for a three-year period.

The community has been very responsive and understands how important it is for us to preserve this unique mode of transportation. We cannot let this slide. We need to push on to success. The trolley had over 500,000 riders last year. This is an important service that the community and visitors rely upon. We need to be visionary and to fight for what is right and needed in our community.

OMC: What's up with old the Grand Theater on Wisconsin Avenue?

BN: I think there is great opportunity there. I know that there are at least two concepts right now that are on the table being looked at very closely. The Milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation is playing a role in that. I have also learned, after many years of working in downtown development, that projects of this magnitude do take time and there is a lot of emotion involved. But, also yet again, you have to have the analytical side, the feasibility analysis, the investors. I have every reason to believe that there will be a successful development at the Grand Theater.

OMC: The Shops of Grand Avenue -- I see there has been a lot of movement in new development in the last year. Are you still optimistic about the return of the mall?

BN: I am very optimistic about the return of the Shops on Grand Avenue. I remember when Grand Avenue Mall first opened in the early 80's. What a phenomenal, phenomenal thing it was. Will we have a Macy's or Nordstrom's? No. The reality is the market will not sustain these stores -- we need retail that is going to be sustainable and supported by this community. I think that is exactly what is happening with TJ Maxx, and Linens 'N Things and you are going to see more local businesses going into the Shops at Grand Avenue, too. For example, St. Francis Bank and Wild Flour Bakery. Border's is a great new anchor. And, don't forget there's great shopping on Old World Third Street, in the Historic Third Ward, Brady Street, East Side and in all downtown neighborhoods.

OMC: Talk about Wisconsin Avenue, please.

BN: I think the street scaping program is going to be extremely, extremely beneficial. When you make a space pedestrian-friendly, people feel comfortable walking in that space. It becomes attractive to potential street level retailers, it becomes attractive to people who are visiting downtown. When you feel safe, when a place is well lit, when it is well maintained, it sends a signal that somebody cares. New lighting, new landscaping, new informational kiosks, new sidewalk treatments, all will create a very walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment.

OMC: What about a movie theater for downtown?

BN: It's the same way I feel about retail when people say "we need a Nordstrom's or we need a Macy's." You know we all have our dreams. I could certainly make my list of kinds of coffee shops I would like to see, retail stores I would like to see, entertainment venues I would like to see. I believe the experts know if a movie theater in downtown Milwaukee was going to be a tremendously successful destination I think it would have been built already. I really do. I would love to see a theater in downtown Milwaukee but, also I wouldn't mind seeing a neighborhood theater similar to the Oriental or the Majestic or some the local theaters on Vliet Street. I think the time may come when a movie theater does locate in downtown Milwaukee, maybe in the new Pabst City?

OMC: What are the best and worst aspects of your job?

BN: The best aspects of my job are the people I get to work with and the energy I am able to derive my passion from each and every day. Those people are our contracted employees, as well as, my partners in the other downtown organizations, my boards, my executive committees and all the other business that we are able to partner with.

I think that is extremely important because we are able to build one voice, we can respectively disagree with one another on some issues but, as a whole I have the privilege of working with a team of people that are consensus builders. There is this unspoken rule of "check your ego at the door" in meetings and we have to roll up our sleeves and get the job done. The worst aspect of my job is there are not enough hours in the day, and some projects move a little bit more slowly than I would like them to.

OMC: Do you have a role model both professionally and personally.

BN: Although I don't know her very well, I have great respect for Sister Joel Reed (former president at Alverno College) and I also have an immense respect for Nancy Zimpher at UW-Milwaukee. My grandmother has always been an inspiration to me too. My grandfather always drove home that old saying "to thine own self be true" and "trust your gut."

OMC: What was the last concert you saw?

BN: Let's see recently, U2, Springsteen, Martina McBride's Christmas concert.

OMC: This is a question I ask everybody just because I like it. If you have three albums or CDs to take on a trip what would they be?

BN: Oh man ... Definitely U2's " All That You Can't Leave Behind," probably Terri Clark, "No Fear" and then let's see ... Erykah Badu, "Baduizm." Talk about variety, hey! I love Sting, too.

OMC: Three things you think Milwaukee needs?

BN: A more balanced transportation system. We need to get over our inferiority complex because this city rocks! And we need to continue the momentum. I think we are on our way.

OMC: If you could have a drink with one person or a conversation with one person today, who and why?

BN: Condoleezza Rice. With the recent war, I am interested in her perspective as a woman, as it relates to war and also what it is like working for the president of the United States in a somewhat controversial typical male position.

OMC: If you are in an elevator and you have 16 floors to tell the Milwaukee story to someone who knows nothing about Milwaukee, what do you say?

BN: Great people, something for everybody and it is a great city to raise a family in. We are rich in the arts and culture. It is a beautiful city, great living opportunities and a variety of choices. There is diversity here and we like it. We are not a homogenous society; it's very affordable. It is so funny, I am always talking about Milwaukee and think more people should too!

OMC: Agreed!

OMC: Any thoughts on the next mayoral race?

BN: I am undecided at this point in terms of candidates. I think that there are going to be more candidates that are going to throw their hat in the ring. I think John Norquist has done a phenomenal job as mayor of this city and nationally he is recognized, if not as the best mayor in the country then one of the very best. I hope we can continue on the same path with the type of leadership that Mayor Norquist has provided us with. I really want to see candidates that are going to set themselves apart.

Clearly downtown development is important to me but also city wide because of my love for the city. Right now, the reason I have not endorsed any candidates is because I feel there is going to be additional candidates throwing their hats in the ring and I just want to be able to take time to study their positions and of course, figure out philosophically where is the best to connect with the candidates. I don't mean to sound political about that, it is just that is the truth.

OMC: Anything else?

BN: A downtown is the cover to your book -- the book that tells the story about your city, your region. Downtown Milwaukee rocks!

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.