By Richie Burke Contributor Published Oct 14, 2020 at 5:01 PM

“Thank God we didn’t know what we were getting into when we started, or we probably wouldn’t have started. One thing we learned was that there is no way to bring civic change to our city. So we created our own, did a lot wrong and learned along the way,” Michael Hostad said on this week’s episode of The GoGedders Podcast.

The journey to light the Hoan started over four years ago when Ian Abston (Hoan Group), Mike Hostad (Greater Milwaukee Committee and The Commons) and a number of other supporters set out to improve Milwaukee’s skyline. They hoped to illuminate the city, bring joy to residents and improve Milwaukee’s overall image, helping attract and retain talent for Milwaukee’s job market in the process.

As of today, the west side of the bridge is lit. After raising $3.5 million to get it there, an additional $1.1 million is still needed to light the east side.

As the story goes for most entrepreneurial ventures, raising that initial $3.5 million took longer than Abston and Hostad initially anticipated. Unlike regular fundraising campaigns that only go public after 80 percent of funds are privately raised (making the final 20 percent easier), they went about things backwards, launching a public campaign with $0 down, $4.6 million to go. This made it tough to find initial donors and gain traction, but the public nature of the campaign inspired Abston and Hostad to power through and achieve their goal.


On the podcast, Abston touched on how hard it is to enact change in Milwaukee, citing a few other challenges the city is facing. One of those is population growth – as other cities gain residents, Milwaukee has remained stagnant, despite the Latino community growing at a steady rate. 

Abston has spent his career championing the city as one of the co-founders of NEWaukee, a social architecture agency that designs memorable experiences that connect the people, places and companies within Milwaukee. During his time there, he helped grow NEWaukee into the largest young professional network in the country, later starting The Hoan Group that’s composed of 200 future leaders in both Madison and Milwaukee.

“We need to attract young people," Abston notes on the podcast. "Young people make a decision on where they want to live ... No one is listening to what young people want; those are the ones we have to attract, keep here and inspire to move here. The research shows that if you’re over 50, you’re not moving because of the vitality of a city. We need to inspire people to want to create a career here.”

Milwaukee has clearly taken a hit during COVID, with minimal DNC impact, no Bucks playoff run, no Summerfest and a postponed Ryder Cup. Before the pandemic, our city was set up for the national spotlight and the economic impact that comes with the territory. Now, with those eyes no longer on us, Light the Hoan is shifting Milwaukee’s attention inward, offering a bright moment in a difficult year.

As the lights are going up, Abston and Hostad have been blown away by how the lights came out and the excitement people are expressing on social media. That said, this project is far from done with another round of fundraising to light the other side of the bridge just around the corner. When complete, the impact of this civic improvement should be felt for years, even decades, to come. Not only does the project reshape Milwaukee’s skyline, other initiatives like Code the Hoan are popping up, which will provide learning modules and opportunities for Milwaukee students to learn how to code the Hoan’s advanced new lights.

I’d like to give a big thank you to Ian and Michael for coming on the podcast, and another to Chis Stegman for putting up with our antics. (You’ll know what I’m talking about if you listen to our intro.)

If you enjoyed the podcast, please make sure to write a review and subscribe. And, if you have any guest ideas or feedback, please reach out directly to me here: