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Miracle on Holton Street – RIC Story Part II

In last month’s issue, we gave a sketch of the Riverwest Investment Cooperative, the local housing investment group that celebrated its second annual membership meeting in August. This month we want to trace the story of RIC over the past twelve months as it changed from a handful of dreamers to a property-holding cooperative capable of qualifying for a loan of over $100,000 and rehabbing the very distressed house at 2543 N. Holton. There is quite a cast of characters. The curtain opened just one year ago. It was September, 2003, and the infrastructure of RIC had been developed. By-laws had been drawn up, the group had been officially registered with the state, and various members had invested a total of $17,000. RIC was ready to roll. Board members scouted the neighborhood to find a suitable house to invest in — a property that could be rehabbed and sold at a fair price to a single family wanting to settle in Riverwest. This first house would be the test and the training ground for the neophyte developers. Who were the board members at that point? As reported last month, Tom Stocco had been the prime mover. A home-owner living on the 2400 block of Bremen and working towards his MBA at UWM, Tom brought skills in accounting as well as idealism and commitment to the neighborhood. He was named the treasurer of RIC. Quinn Wilder became president. With skills at conducting meetings — keeping them brisk, on topic, and seasoned with humor — Quinn was a natural chairperson. He had experience working with youth groups and living elsewhere, but felt he was truly coming home when he moved to Riverwest in 1995, as his parents had lived on the 2700 block of Weil when he was born. Quinn is currently working and studying in the Dept. of Urban Education at UWM, and he had connected early on with Tom Stocco after meetings of the Riverwest Neighborhood Association as the two of them share ideas about community empowerment. Another RIC founder was Chris Johns. He joined Tom and Quinn in envisioning a housing investment cooperative. He graduated from the School of Architecture at UWM in 1995 and first became involved with this neighborhood when he helped design the lay-out of the Onopa Brewing Company on Center Street. Working within the structure of a former furniture store, he laid out the space of what has become a very successful gathering place. In 2002, Chris bought a house on the 2500 block of Bremen which he promptly proceeded to rehab. He became head of RIC’s Property Committee. Clare Lewis is a home-owner on the 2800 block of Fratney and a neighborhood activist long associated with the Riverwest Co-op and the Riverwest Artists Association. She stepped in as the liaison between RIC and the Riverwest Neighborhood Association. Besides recruiting several new members, she agreed to serve as vice-president of RIC. Chris Papadopoulos joined RIC after attending the April 2003 meeting at Dino’s. A native of Pennsylvania, he completed his doctoral studies at Cornell and came to Milwaukee in 2001 when he accepted a position as assistant professor in the Dept. of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at UWM. Rather than settle on the east side, he was drawn to Riverwest. With his long-held ideas about how a community might be vitalized by investing in property, Chris was a natural for RIC. He was named secretary. These were the people at the helm last September as RIC began its search for its first investment property. Enter Dana Cable. A general contractor with long-time family ties to the neighborhood, he noticed that the city had condemned the abandoned house at 2543 N. Holton, and he passed this lead on to the people at RIC. After consultation with the membership, the Executive Committee decided to purchase the property. As was mentioned last month, the deal was closed just days before the wrecking crew was slated to demolish the house. The purchase price was $11,000, well within RIC’s early bank account. But once the property was deeded over to RIC, the group was faced with the monumental task of cleaning it out and enclosing it before winter. Enter Jim Klisch, a home-owner on the 2100 block of Buffum and co-founder of Lakefront Brewery. “Big Jim,” as his e-mail address dubs him, set about coordinating volunteers to help with the immediate tasks. People who worked on the house were offered sweat equity, which means that with every 10 hours of work, a person earns $100 in equity in RIC. Through this arrangement RIC has been able to involve people who do not have a lot of disposable cash to invest. (This system continues through to the present; anyone who’d like to participate can get more details by calling Quinn Wilder at 372-5052.) Even as the debris was hauled away, there was still the roof to restore before the snows began to fall. Dana Cable oversaw the construction of the roof. By spring RIC had a few new members who had put up $1000 and several volunteers who had put in sweat equity, but basically the group had run out of money. They could go no further with the financial resources that they had. Should they give up, they wondered? Sell the building and throw in the towel? Had they bitten off more than they could chew? Talented and enthusiastic as they were, none of the RIC Executive Committee had any experience in what they were doing. They were all new at the game of neighborhood development. At their meeting in March, they were advised that they should as a group learn how to borrow money from a bank. They were further advised that they might have trouble as a young organization with no track record in obtaining a loan. Enter Kevin Flaherty. Formerly a director of the Brewery Workers’ Credit Union and an investor in RIC, Kevin suggested that RIC approach Lincoln Neighborhood Redevelopment Corp. on the southside. LNRC is an arm of Lincoln State Bank; it serves clients that regular banks do not generally deal with. Enter Dick Knoedler. He is a retired high school teacher who owns a home on the 2500 block of Humboldt. With his hands-on skills, he had become increasingly involved in working on the Holton house, but he also had a quiet way of facilitating a conversation. With his patience and gift for negotiating, Dick became the liason with LNRC. Hilde DeWulf is the executive director of LNRC. Even though she was impressed with the work that had been done on the Holton property and the earnestness of RIC members, Hilde and her advisors handed back the loan application that RIC first submitted. “Not good enough!” was the message. “But try again.” Tom and Chris went back to the drawing board. They developed project scopes and scheduled walk-throughs with qualified contractors. They obtained three estimates for each of the sixteen bids that were offered. That meant interviewing three electrical contractors, three plumbing contractors, three carpentry contractors, and so on. The final paperwork they submitted mounted to 50 pages. They did their best to meet the very professional standards that LNRC required of them. As RIC awaited response from LNRC on its second loan application, work on the Holton house was stalled for lack of money. At that juncture, people turned their efforts to trying to attract new members. Enter John Rosetto. John lives in Bayview, not Riverwest. He and his brother Russ learned about RIC through conversations with Ald. Mike D’Amato, who from the start has supported the idea of community investment. With his expertise in marketing and public relations, John designed a RIC “booth” for The Locust Street Festival in June. He and others on the marketing committee saw the neighborhood festival as a way to attract the attention of local residents. Enter Susan Mroczynski. A home-owner in Riverwest since 1998, Susan has rehabbed several rental properties in the neighborhood. As she strolled along Locust St. on June 13, she was attracted to the RIC display table. She looked at the photos, perused the literature and right on the spot she decided to join. Whipping out her checkbook, she invested more than $1000. The timing of her investment could not have been better. It was a huge vote of confidence just as people were unsure whether the loan from LNRC would go through. As reported last month, RIC held its 2nd annual meeting on August 23. At the elections held that night, Larraine McNamara-McGraw was chosen to succeed Clare Lewis as vice-president. All the other officers will continue for another year. Within days of that August meeting, LNRC announced that they were most impressed by the loan application that RIC had submitted. They approved a loan of $104,000, enough to cover the estimated costs of completing the rehab of the Holton house. And so the story of RIC’s first year comes to a happy end. Over and over, as challenges have arisen, people have come onto the stage to save the day. As we go to press, work has already begun on plumbing, concrete work, and rough carpentry at the RIC property. Watch for notice of the open house that is planned when the rehab is complete and the house is put up for sale. 2543 N. Holton has been a challenging first project for RIC but members are proud of all they have learned this year and hopeful as they begin imagining what their next neighborhood investment might be.