By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 10, 2005 at 5:40 AM Photography: Andy Tarnoff

UPDATE: The Cactus Club's renovation was denied by the Common Council's Utilities & Licenses Committee on Tuesday.

{image1} There's a battle raging in Bay View these days, and it's about to reach Downtown on Tuesday. That's when Eric Uecke, owner of the Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave., faces a city committee to seek approval for alterations to the Bay View tavern and indie rock club.

"I consider it a complete and utter renovation of the entire building," said Uecke. "This is a 100-year-old building that's never been properly remodeled."

Uecke, who owns and lives in the house next door to the club at 2494 S. Wentworth Ave., estimated the changes, which include adding 12 feet to the north side of the structure to make space to expand the bathrooms and make the building handicapped accessible, will cost between $150,000 and $175,000.

In addition, Uecke, who has owned the club for 10 years, would replace the existing bar, floors, external signage and ventilation systems, among other things, and enclose the garbage bins outside.

The problem for Uecke is that some of his neighbors and the Bay View Alderman Tony Zielinski are dead set against it.

"I'm 110 percent opposed to that expansion," Zielinski said. "I've had long-standing complaints about the Cactus Club; about the noise in the neighborhood, loitering, parking problems."

Zielinski added that other taverns close to the Cactus Club, such as Palomino and Club Garibaldi, rarely generate complaints to his office.

According to Zielinski, the main problem for him and for some neighbors is that the capacity of the club would rise from 80 to 200. But Uecke counters that without that boosted capacity he's unable to spend the money to renovate the club.

"How often can a small indie club in Milwaukee expect to sell out at 200 people," Uecke asked, rhetorically. "Maybe once a month. The renovations all are attractions to make it a more upscale club and a more consistent business. How many people walk in and see the bathroom situation and walk out? And see the small space and walk out?"

Uecke estimated that in the past month and a half the club has reached its capacity three or four times.

"And that's at 80 (people)," he added.

"I'm all for (the renovation); I think it's a great idea," said Tag Grotelueschen, who runs nearby the Club Garibaldi tavern with partner Joe Dean. "Anything that would give a little more elbow room, I'm all for. And it's his own property, it's not like it's someone else's property. It's a fairly small expansion. It's not going to change anything (in the neighborhood)."

But a vocal group of neighbors has spoken out against many Bay View taverns, according to Uecke and Grotelueschen, and apparently have especially focused on the Cactus Club.

"It's really just a small handful that is making a lot of noise," said Grotelueschen. "They don't like Eric and they don't like the names of the bands that play there. And some of them only moved into the neighborhood five years ago. You saw the three bars 100 yards from your house, what did you think?"

But Zielinski said that taverns aren't the problem ... live music is the problem.

"People in the area seem to be focusing on the Cactus Club because they have live music and you have a different clientele than you have at some of the other places," he said. "They don’t have the presence of mind to lower their volume when they leave the bar environment and they hang around and they talk loud and make noise; that’s when it wakes people up and causes problems for the neighbors."

The building has operated continuously as a tavern since it was constructed in 1910, according to Uecke, and it has had a license to host live music since it became the country and western-themed Cactus Club in 1957. The tavern's back room is known to have been home to live music as early as the mid-1910s when then-barkeep Steve Zawec rented space to a group of Italians who played music there.

Zielinski and Uecke have discussed the problems, but have not been able to find common ground.

"Verbally he's been (cooperative)," Zielinski said, "but they still have problems. Right now things are bad, and to more than double the capacity ... It's real easy for people who don't live in the area to say, 'we support the club' but for the people who live here it's different. No one in the neighborhood has a problem with him fixing up the property. It looks terrible. We want him to fix it up."

Uecke demurred.

"(Zielinski) is completely and utterly against me in every way," he countered. "He's been undermining the entire project by going door to door himself and calling people, yet he made no mention to them that he's allowing a new liquor license (at Groppi's) closer to the women that oppose me than I am. And he told no one. He hoped it would quietly pass without the neighbors being informed."

Zielinski has floated what he believes is a viable solution to Uecke.

"If he needs to expand to his capacity, I told him I'd be happy to find another place in Bay View, where there's less housing, we'll make it as big as he wants and accommodate him," Zielinski said. "I'd do whatever I can to support him and help him find a place and at the same time be respectful of the neighborhood. He doesn't want do that; he wants to stay where he is."

On the last point, Uecke agreed.

"I would be willing in the future to open a place on Kinnickinnic (Avenue), but I need an existing place to give me the cash flow and equity in the meantime," Uecke said. "For me to buy a building, relocate, uproot after 10 years, after I put all the time and effort into this building, would be incredibly cost prohibitive. And I'd be giving up one of the best locations in Milwaukee, in a bar district -- because this is a bar district -- right off the highway."

With Bay View becoming a magnet for more and more businesses, including ones that come alive at night, this type of conflict is not unexpected, according to Carol Voss, chair of the Bay View Neighborhood Association, which held a meeting on the expansion Tuesday evening at the Beulah Brinton Center on South Bay Street.

"The challenge is, the character of the neighborhood clearly needs to be maintained, but an evolution improving some elements while absolutely maintaining others is a balancing act," said Voss.

"The Cactus Club renovation plan is just one development that is demonstrating some of the challenges and opportunities our neighborhood faces -- neighbors owe it to themselves to appreciate the pros and cons of each project thoroughly when weighing in. With Bay View's new and older mix of neighbors, and increasing popularity as a place to reside, shop and a destination for nightlife, there is clearly going to be mixed reactions on all issues."

So, to the committee they go and each will certainly bring support. Zielinski can likely count on the neighbors opposed to the project and Uecke will arrive with his attorney and support from his clientele and his colleagues.

"I'm sure one of us (Grotelueschen or Dean) will be there one way or the other (to support Eric at the hearing)," said Club Garibaldi's Grotelueschen.

The Cactus Club hearing will be held in room 301-B on the third floor of City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 3 p.m.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.