By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published May 15, 2015 at 1:06 PM

Since 2005, more than $2.6 billion of public and private investment has taken place in Downtown Milwaukee.  Creative partnerships, hard work and energetic leaders help make it happen.

On the forefront of much of the energy in Downtown are the leaders of the several business groups and Business Improvement Districts.  One, Westown, stands to truly emerge in the coming year.  So, I thought it was time that I checked in with the current leaders of the Westown Association. 

Full disclosure, my wife hired Stacie Callies when she was the executive director of the Westown Association, a business improvement district in Downtown Milwaukee.  And, is a proud and longtime sponsor of Westown events. 

Today, Callies is the Executive Director of Westown and has been with the Downtown organization for nearly 14 years.  But this year may signal the most change the area has even seen.

Amidst planning for all the summer events the organization hosts, ongoing Wisconsin Avenue, Shops of Grand Avenue, arena discussions and more, I caught up with Callies for this latest edition of "Milwaukee Talks."  First and most obvious question, Westown is poised to change big with a new arena complex.  What are the opportunities and challenges with such a large, catalytic project?

Stacie Callies:  This project is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity; if and when it moves forward, the arena and ancillary development will definitely change the landscape of Westown.  There won't be many opportunities in the next generation to create $500 billion in development in the Westown area or even Downtown Milwaukee for that matter.  One of the real opportunities is to use this development to further create a sense of place and develop a neighborhood feel west of the river.

It's exciting that the arena design makes a thoughtful effort to connect it to the other nodes of Westown like The Brewery, Old World Third Street and the Milwaukee River, which will help create a more cohesive, pedestrian-friendly area.  We talk a lot within Westown about the large, multi-block public assembly and government institutions on the west side of the river creating an environment that doesn't feel comfortable on the pedestrian scale or help create a sense of walkability.

Those involved with the design process of the arena seemed to really embrace the ideas of pedestrian scale, walkability and connectivity and integrated them into the design, which will really help address this challenge.  The dialogue about how we are going to accomplish building a new arena has been politically-charged at times, but the true objective of keeping the Milwaukee Bucks in the city has created some unprecedented collaboration between different community and business groups and levels of government that we haven't seen in a long time.

Hopefully this collaboration becomes the standard  moving forward showing the greater community that if we work together on important policy issues, great things can happen.  Now that the location has been set,  it is important to start discussion about how the development is integrated and connected to the periphery of Westown including West Wisconsin Avenue and the other areas of downtown like the Third Ward.  The streetcar and transit system can be an important piece in making this happen as well as streetscaping and other placemaking methods such as landscaping and public art.

OMC:  Now, give us the three-minute Stacie Callies story.

SC:  I'm not much of a self promoter, so I'm not sure it will take three minutes. I'm from rural Dodge County near Juneau, which was an ideal place to grow up.  Driving distance to Madison and Milwaukee, but a place where you could still leave a house key in the refrigerator on the front porch.  Hopefully my parents don't do that anymore.

My family loyally tuned into the Milwaukee news, which I think shaped some of my public policy ideas and created a desire to be in an urban environment.  Good or bad, it always seemed like there was something more interesting happening in Milwaukee and I wanted to be a part of it.

I went to college at UW-Green Bay and interned at the On Broadway Main Street program on the city's near-west side which led to a position at the Waukesha Business Improvement District after college before coming to Westown in 2001.  The work I'm involved in has helped me develop a real connection to the city.

I'm a Milwaukeean at heart now.  I currently live Downtown and can't see myself ever leaving the city.  On a more personal level, I'm really fortunate to be in a great relationship with someone who is willing to put up with my unique personality and has easily adapted to the Westown lifestyle.  I'm also very fortunate that he now completely understands that it's not a trolley – it's a streetcar!

OMC: For those who don't know, what is Westown?

SC:  The Westown Association is a Downtown business association funded by a small business improvement district, which collects property tax assessments from 35 properties owners, as well as membership dues, sponsorship and other program revenue.  The organization has two full time staff people and a very dedicated volunteer board of directors. 

Westown is overlapped by Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21, which does cause some confusion, but has a distinct mission and tends to tackle more street-level quality of life issues and other economic development initiatives as well as produce successful special events such as the St. Patrick's Day Parade, River Rhythms and farmer's market that bring thousands of people to the area each year.   

The Westown area's geographical boundaries are the Milwaukee River to the east, I-43 to the west, McKinley Avenue to the north and the Menomonee River to the south.  As I've said, the area has some geographically distinct and separate areas that can make things a challenge to tie together.

For example, when you compare the areas like the historic/entertainment district of Old World 3rd Street to the area around the Intermodal Station on St. Paul – they are very different.   Westown is definitely the underdog perception-wise if you compare it to the other downtown neighborhoods – a perception that is very ingrained in the history of Milwaukee.

In reality, the crime statistics in Westown aren't much different than those east of the river. When you look at the sheer numbers – millions of visitors to the Milwaukee Public Museum, the BMO Harris Bradley Center and Wisconsin Center, 2,500 hotel rooms, 1,200  residential units (and 420 more to come with the residential developments in progress) the neighborhood has a lot more activity than people think.  Internally, we believe the perception issues will become more positive as the neighborhood continues to change over the next five years.

OMC:  Other than your events, what are some current priorities for the Westown Association? 

SC:  Westown strives to maintain their slate of successful event programming and work on economic development issues in the area.  But to clarify an issue that has been addressed in other media outlets, we have made addressing nuisance and quality of life issues on the street level like panhandling and public drinking a priority as well.  More and more residential development is coming to the Westown area.

And although these types of issues are a somewhat expected part of urban life, we know it is important to keep them in check to create a positive quality of life for the people moving to the area..  We know that these issues directly impact the perception of the area.  We need to ensure that people want to live and do business in our part of Downtown for it to thrive.  We have developed a great partnership with the Milwaukee Police Department as well as support from our downtown alderman in an effort to tackle these issues.

OMC:  What would you tell someone who hasn’t been to Downtown Milwaukee in 10 years?

SC:  You are missing out on the best part of the state ... yes, I'm biased.  Being connected to Downtown for so long has allowed me to see the area evolve very dramatically.  There's so much more of a neighborhood feel because there are so many more people living in the area. 

There really is something for everyone in Downtown Milwaukee: great events, nightlife, dining, professional sports, historic buildings and a beautiful riverwalk to mention a few.   It's easy for me to tout the great things about Downtown, but you really need to experience it firsthand.  And seeing the downtown via the river gives you a unique perspective on these changes, which I encourage everyone to do at least once on one of the many boat tours like the Edelweiss or Riverwalk Boats in Pere Marquette Park.

OMC:  What’s Downtown still need?

SC:  Importantly, a comprehensive financing mechanism for the new arena because we know it's not a done deal yet. Redevelopment of the Grand Theater and adjoining office building, an iconic, demand generator type of development on the Fourth and Wisconsin surface lot, more transportation options like the streetcar to connect the different nodes of downtown, continued growth of residential development – especially west of the river – to create enough density for successful retail like a city Target, a pedestrian-friendly environment on West Wisconsin Avenue and more infill development on some of the vacant surface lots.  An NBA Championship for the Bucks and NCAA championship for Marquette – OK, I guess those might be more like wants.

OMC: So, what’s up at Grand Avenue?

SC:  The new ownership took control of the property last fall and has a local management team from MidAmerica running the day to day operations.  I was fortunate to meet with the new owner, Alex Levin and his MidAmerica team late last year and was impressed by how open they were to suggestions from the neighborhood about repositioning and rebranding the property.

Nothing is off the table at this point.  I think they are starting with some infrastructure upgrades and redesign of the food court as the first steps.  Maybe it's the Pollyanna in me, but I feel strongly that there's a positive future for Grand Avenue.  It may not have a retail emphasis, but there's an outside-of-the-box idea that is going to help maximize this important piece of Westown.

If you haven't been there in a while, I encourage everyone to walk through the place.  As a Downtown resident, I'm glad I have access to TJ Maxx, the food court, Stone Creek Coffee, Walgreens and some of the other places. I don't like to give away all of my Grand Avenue secrets, but the gourmet food aisle and shoe section at TJ Maxx can't be beat or the bargain shoe room at Boston Store.  And yes, I really enjoy shoes.

OMC: How do you and Westown work to best confront aggressive panhandlers?

SC: If you travel to other cities, it's common to encounter panhandling in even the most robust urban economies like Portland and Seattle.  However, when it occurs in an area that isn't as active, as a pedestrian it can be perceived as more intimidating.  The area around W. Wisconsin Ave. has a growing residential base, but isn't at the point yet where behavior like panhandling is "crowded out" by the volume of activity on the street, so it appears very visible.  This is very evident when there is an event at the Wisconsin Center or The Riverside, creating more pedestrian traffic on the street and in the nearby businesses, lending to an entirely different street level experience.  Also, visitors that attend events at the convention center and stay at the hotels on the avenue create a better opportunity for panhandlers to target than those who work and live downtown who are less likely to give.  Additionally, there are a number of businesses in this area that sell single containers of beer or small bottles of liquor that make alcohol more accessible because it requires less time to gather the necessary funds.  Although statistically a very safe area, these elements contribute to making West Wisconsin Avenue a desirable environment for panhandlers, which lend to the perception that it is unsafe.  Through increasing the residential base and hotel occupancy and by holding more events and programming, the increased activity will go a long way towards changing perceptions over time.
Panhandling is an issue that Westown, along with our partners, have tried to address in a multitude of ways over the years. In general, I don't think that attacking the issue through stricter laws alone is the answer because it doesn't do enough to solve the underlying issues connected to panhandling.   In Milwaukee, we are fortunate to have a religious community that provides three opportunities for meals in the downtown area - The Gathering at St. James Church for breakfast, The Open Door Cafe at St. John's Cathedral for lunch and St. Ben's Community Meal for dinner - which makes me feel more confident that some needs are being met.   I try to spread the word of the important  work done by these organizations and others like The Guesthouse so that people understand that giving money to programs like this is more beneficial to the community than giving to an individual who may have a substance abuse issue.  I also think prohibiting the sale of nuisance products like I mentioned above as well as enforcing the "No Sell" list to retail liquor establishments, which was developed by MPD District One to deal with habitual offenders, will both positively impact this issue.  Because they are often a first line of communication on this particular issue, MPD has developed the Homeless Outreach Team, a specialized unit that deals with a large volume of incidents related to the homeless, helping to connect them with necessary and available services, which has been critical in getting some of the chronic homeless off the street.  Overall, I think there are a lot of ongoing singular efforts to solve this issue, but it is critical that law enforcement, service agencies and the business community work together on a cohesive strategy that approaches this issue in a more innovative way moving forward.

OMC:  What book(s) are you reading now?

SC:  I just bought "740 Park, the Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building" and "House of Outrageous fortune - 15 Central Park West" both by Michael Gross, but haven't started either yet.  I travel to New York City often and am fascinated by the real estate environment in the city, so they should be good reads. 

OMC:  Two things you’d change about Milwaukee?

SC: Our inferiority complex to other cities – Milwaukee has a lot of momentum right now, and of course, still has a way to go in some areas, but we shouldn't need our visitors to convince us that this city can stand toe to toe with our peer cities.   I was just reminded of this recently when thinking about how much the Bucks new ownership, who have been around for a year, already love the city and have become our biggest cheerleaders.  There's definitely a reason we make all of those top ten lists, but we just need to internalize it locally. 

Secondly, we tend to resist change to a fault. Hanging on to traditions and respecting those that have paved the way before us is extremely important, but "because that's the way it has always been" or "we've already tried that" are not acceptable answers.  We need to stop hanging onto negative perceptions for generations.

Bringing together a few creative, can-do people and refusing to take no for an answer can really make things happen – who would have guessed five years ago that we might have a new arena Downtown?  And I'm not even a Millennial, as I fall into the more Gen X category myself.  However, I really give kudos to groups like Newaukee that are out there active on the ground-level changing this attitude.

OMC: Define success.

SC:  Knowing that I've tried my hardest. Something I learned from father is that it doesn't matter how gifted you are at something, it's how hard you work at it.  Sweat equity pays off.

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.