Ald. Tony Zielinski represents the 14th district on Milwaukee's South Side, including Bay View. This year, Zielinski celebrates 20 years in political office after starting his career in 1988 as the first elected supervisor of the 12th District.
Zielinski was first elected to the Common Council as alderman in 2004 and was reelected in 2008, nabbing 84 percent of the vote. He chairs the Anti-Graffiti Task Force, is vice-chair of the Community and Economic Development Committee and is a member of the Licenses Committee and the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee.
He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a master's in business administration from Cardinal Stritch University, and a law degree from Marquette University Law School.
Recently, OnMilwaukee.com met Ald. Zielinski for coffee and to chat with him about the future of Bay View, his environmentally friendly actions and his experiences working with Michael McGee, Jr.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long have you lived in Bay View?
Ald. Tony Zielinski: 21 years.
OMC: During that time, you've seen a lot of change in the neighborhood, right?
TZ: It's changed dramatically. Twenty-one years ago, you didn't see that many young people running around. The population was older. Now the demographics are changing such that we get a lot younger people that are single or married or living together without kids. We still have kids, but not to the extent we had in the past.
OMC: Why has the demographic changed?
TZ: I think the change in the demographic has to do with the types of businesses we have coming in here. For example, Mike Eitel, who owns the Nomad and Trocadero, is opening a place on the corner over here (Café Centraal) and that will open in two or three weeks. Sugar Maple opened recently, and they're doing really well.
OMC: Would you agree that Café Lulu paved the way for the "new" Bay View?
TZ: Yes. Café Lulu was actually the first business that tapped into that new demographic. We have a lot of people who come from Downtown for Café Lulu.
OMC: Is proximity to Downtown a draw for people who move to Bay View?
TZ: Absolutely. A lot of younger professional people do not want to drive out to the suburbs like previous generations because the younger generations guard their time more closely. I know that's one of the things I really like about Bay View: It takes me eight minutes from the time I leave my garage to the time I get to my (work) garage Downtown. And I'm almost sorry to see the drive end because I get to see such a beautiful view of the lake and the Downtown skyline. How do you beat that?
I live in a nice, quaint neighborhood, I can walk to the Groppi's grocery store for great quality fruits and vegetables and meats, and I can walk to nice establishments like Three Brothers and other places like that without having to drive. Plus, I can walk along the lakefront, there's a lot of green space. This is just a great place to live. And it's safe.
OMC: Would you recommend Bay View to just about anyone in the city?
TZ: Absolutely. If you want to live in the City of Milwaukee, and you don't want to live in a condo in the Downtown area, and you want to still get a reasonably priced house in a safe neighborhood, this is the only game in town.
OMC: What are you top three goals for Bay View?
TZ: Public safety, business revitalization -- especially along (Kinnickinnic Avenue) -- and keeping the taxes down.
OMC: What does Bay View still need?
TZ: We need to reopen the Avalon Theater. We're moving in that direction. Lee Barczak purchased the building about two-and-a-half or so years ago, and it's an $8 million project, so it's taking longer than anticipated to put the funding together.
The Avalon Theater is the most historic movie theater in the State of Wisconsin. The first talking pictures in Wisconsin took place at the Avalon. It's more historic than The Oriental. When this opens, it's going to be a major shot in the arm for the strip.
OMC: Anything else that you'd like to see open in Bay View?
TZ: I have been working on getting a computer store here. We need a place where we can upgrade our computers and buy accessories. Now, almost everyone in Bay View has a computer, but they have to go to Southridge or someplace like that to have it serviced. I think if we had something like a Milwaukee PC on KK, most people in Bay View would use it.
The other thing I've been working on is to get a Thai restaurant. We have a nice array of restaurants, especially when Mike Eitel opens up his place, but we need a Thai place, too.
OMC: You identified Café Lulu (now Lulu) as a business that helped Bay View flourish. What other businesses have been key to Bay View's transformation and success?
TZ: The Outpost opening in Bay View was huge, and when Sendik's bought Groppi's Market, that was another big thing.
The Boulevard Theater has been here for a long time, and they continue to do well. They bring in a lot of restaurant business, too.
OMC: You have a reputation as being an environmentally conscious politician. What are your hot eco-friendly issues these days?
TZ: People in Bay View are very environmentally conscious, which is why one of the things I'm pushing is solar power. We're going to have the first residential, solar-powered development in the state of Wisconsin. It will be at the old Army reserve on Logan (Avenue), and the feedback from my constituents on this has been overwhelmingly supportive. Solar power is great for the environment, it's great for the economy because having solar panels installed creates more jobs. We're even working to attract solar manufacturers to the area.
OMC: Are you still a believer in ethanol?
TZ: Yes, ethanol has its time and place, but solar power is great because it's free and it's right there.
OMC: Tell me about your involvement with Fair Trade Milwaukee.
TZ: Milwaukee became the first city in the country to become a fair trade city. There's approximately 350 fair trade cities in Europe, so we we're behind them on this one. I know New York and San Francisco are looking at this now, too, but Milwaukee beat them to it.
Basically, when you designate yourself a fair trade city, you set up a special committee to help educate the public about the fair trade movement and how to get involved. You can play a role through your purchasing power. We've had a number of different events to help promote fair trade in this city and to educate people about the movement.
One of the things we teach people is to look for the fair trade symbol when buying coffee or chocolate. When you see that symbol, you know you're helping to do two things. Number one, you're helping to prevent the exploitation of workers for economic gain, and at the same time, you're helping to protect the environment.
The sweat-free movement is also really important. About nine months ago, I got an ordinance approved to designate that all purchases over $30,000 in the procurement division would give preference to those companies that do not take advantage of sweat labor. My goal with the sweat-free movement is to help prevent the exploitation of workers world wide, and secondly, I want to level the playing field for American manufacturers.
In America, we believe in family-supporting jobs, and we don't feel it's fair or just to reward companies that close down factories that relocate to Third World countries where they exploit workers while American families are suffering. What we have to do as a governmental entity is pave the way to address those injustices from both the economic and the human justice perspective.
Milwaukee on its own is not going to have the impact we want or need, but if we work with other communities, there's enough cumulative purchasing power where we could have a major impact on the marketplace and help save manufacturing in the country. Unless we do something to start leveling the playing field for our American manufacturers, within a few years, we won't have any to speak of.
OMC: Your district is not just Bay View, and includes a variety of different demographics. How do you walk the line and keep everyone happy?
TZ: Everybody's for public safety, everybody's for business revitalization, and everybody's for lower taxes. Whether you're rich or poor you want these things. There are always more similarities than differences, and that's how I try to approach it. Most of the people are concerned about human rights and social justice issues; it's just that some of the groups feel even more intense about this than other groups.
I'm proactive on a lot of fronts. And if you call me, whether you're rich or poor, you want your alderman to call you back. That's how I got 84 percent -- I'm very proud of that -- reelection rate.
OMC: McCain or Obama?
TZ: I'll stick with the local stuff.
OMC: How do you connect with the "alternative" businesses owners and inhabitants in Bay View since you are, with all due respect, a "suit?"
TZ: We need all types of businesses here to have a vibrant business district for everybody. If you look at a business like the Alchemist Theater, that's kind of an alternative-type of business, I work proactively with them.
I'm very supportive of people and whatever lifestyle they choose. I'm active with the LGBT organization here and they endorsed me for reelection because of my work with them. I think it's important to be respectful of everyone's lifestyle and to work with them proactively.
OMC: A lot of people were sorry to see the Schwartz Bookshop close. Why do you think that happened?
TZ: That's a phenomenon of that particular industry. That industry is changing so rapidly. For example, you can go to Amazon.com -- and a lot of people are -- and you can buy a used book with one little ink mark in there for a lot less than you'd pay at a Schwartz Bookshop. However, we have a lot of people, like myself, that will spend the extra money because they understand why you need to patronize a local bookshop. People who are struggling, though, don't have that option. They have to go with the less expensive option.
OMC: Are you a supporter of the Bay View Bash?
TZ: Yes. It helps the businesses on KK. It helps market Bay View and it brings new people to Bay View. It might even attract new business. This is all good stuff.
OMC: Other than the opening of Café Lulu, is there an event that comes to mind that helped to revitalize Bay View?
TZ: What really helped us turn the corner was when Sendik's bought the Groppi grocery store five years ago. And the Outpost store here was a major hurdle. There was recently an article that said the Outpost here is growing at a faster pace than other Outposts. South Shore Farmers Market adds to help to the sense of community here. It's dynamite.
Mike Eitel opening a place here is important, too. He's a very savvy, successful business man, and he' not going to come down here and spend the kind of money he's spending to open this place unless he feels there is great potential here.
OMC: What was it like working with former Ald. Michael McGee, Jr?
TZ: Working with him one-on-one, he was a pretty good guy. And again, I'm talking about one-on-one, just dealing with him in the office. He's usually in an upbeat mood and an easy guy to get along with. There's this Michael McGee, and then there's the other Michael McGee, but the one I mostly dealt with was an easy-going guy. I had a pretty good relationship with him.
OMC: Were you surprised when you heard about his legal issues?
OMC: After last summer's shooting in South Shore Park -- which is a rare occurrence for this part of the city -- did your commitment to public safety increase?
TZ: I have been known as being very proactive in terms of fighting crime. I got an award from the police department a few years ago as Alderman of the Year, and that's statewide. I'm a leader on the council for fighting for additional cops on the streets. I had the Anti Gang-Loitering Ordinance that was somewhat controversial, but I did get that approved.
OMC: What are your thoughts on the new police chief, Ed Flynn?
TZ: No particular thoughts yet. All in all, I think he's doing a good job.
OMC: If you didn't live in Bay View where would you live?
TZ: That's a toughie. I would probably live on the East Side or Downtown or Third Ward.
OMC: Are you married? Do you have kids?
TZ: I've been married for 15 years. We do not have kids.
OMC: Bay View has been called "The Other East Side." What are your thoughts on this?
TZ: No, no. Now we refer to it as "The Better East Side." The East Side is great -- I love the East Side -- but in Bay View has more of a neighborhood community kind of feel and the area around UWM has so many student rentals. I graduated from UWM, but it hinders the quality of life when you have eight guys living in one place, bringing in the half barrels. We don't really have that here. In fact, a lot of people are moving here from the East Side and Riverwest -- I'm even meeting people who moved here from the suburbs.
OMC: So why is Bay View such a safe place to live?
TZ: In Bay View, we're getting people that are professionals or young professionals. You get more of a stable neighborhood with these types of residents. Also, if I get a report of a "problem house," I immediately get involved and have the people removed via the Nuisance Abatement Ordinance. That way, you keep the problem house from affecting the rest of the neighborhood. I also work to get a lot of block watches set up.
OMC: Are you going to run for alderman again?
TZ: Yeah, as of right now, yes.
OMC: If you weren't in politics, what would you do?
TZ: I'm also an attorney, so I could see myself working as a lawyer. I also have an MBA. However, public service is head and shoulders above everything else. This is the most fulfilling for me. I knew this at a very young age, and was elected in 1988. Between the county board and the common council, no one on the common council has more experience than I.
OMC: What do you like to do when you're not working?
TZ: Jog, lift weights, travel. I've been to Egypt to see the pyramids, Italy, Germany, Austria, France, went on a great northern European cruise, been on about six Caribbean cruises, Hawaii. I try to make the most out of my free time.
I also like listening to music. Led Zeppelin is my favorite.
OMC: Dogs are a part of Bay View's culture. Are you a dog person?
TZ: I love pets. A dog park is at the top of the list for me. I identified a parcel of land under the bridge between Bay (Street) and Lincoln (Avenue) that could work as a dog park. We are also working on a skateboarding park for kids.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.