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Riverwest Renewal

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Inside Fuel Cafe one May afternoon hipsters guzzle java in the smoky din to the whirr of the coffee grinder. Down the street, shoppers peruse naughty trinkets on the shelves of The Tool Shed, a female-friendly erotic boutique. A few blocks down the street, Riverwesters chow down on spicy African cuisine at Club Timbuktu. What do all of these businesses have in common? All are small, locally owned enterprises located on Center Street in Riverwest. In the past year, new bus-inesses have cropped up like mushrooms in the neighborhood, competing with some old favorites. Nile Salon, Mondo Brothers and Bella Luna Pasta, the Riverwest Co-op Cafe are just some well-known names that recently opened their doors. Why start a business in Riverwest? Owners cite cheaper rent, a diverse customer base and a sheer love of the neighborhood. Omar Gagale, co-owner (along with Youssouf Komara) of six-month-old Club Timbuktu, has no second thoughts about opening a club and restaurant in Riverwest. “It’s a very good area for the purpose that we wanted,” he says. “It’s a diverse neighborhood. A lot of people are responding to [the club’s] uniqueness.” Eilis O’Herlihy, who co-owns The Tool Shed, a female-friendly erotic boutique, says that she and co-owner Molly Cassidy opened the store on Center Street because they have lived in the neighborhood for years and appreciate Riverwest’s friendliness. “People are there to help you out when you need a hammer,” she says. Longtime Fuel Cafe co-owner Scott Johnson agrees. Fuel Cafe is one example of a long time, successful and very popular Riverwest business, which he partly attributes to the loyalty of Fuel’s customers. Johnson says he can’t remember why exactly he chose Riverwest as a location. “Naivete, really loving the neighborhood, somehow it worked out,” he says. Fuel Cafe is currently undergoing a $1 million renovation. “Riverwest has some interesting opportunities and challenges,” says Don Sargent, a business support specialist for Riverworks, who has helped many businesses in the Capitol Drive and Holton Street area. “One of the main advantages of Riverwest is that once you’re off Capitol Drive, which is expensive, you spend a lot less on rent.” Sargent estimates monthly rents on Center Street from $500 to $600 a month. The downsides of doing business in Riverwest include lack of traffic, occasional vandalism and even Riverwest’s lingering reputation as a “bad” neighborhood. “[The Tool Shed] is off the beaten track for people who don’t regularly come to the neighborhood,” says O’Herlihy. “It takes more to pull people in.” Wendi Mesich, volunteer coordinator of the Riverwest Co-op, says the stigma of being in Riverwest is disappearing, but problems like lack of parking remain. The vandalism is another deterrent. “The downsides are maybe some crime, we’ve been broken into once, graffiti has been a problem,” says Ross Davis, owner of Bella Luna Pasta. Undeterred by these problems and encouraged by Riverwest’s increasing popularity, businesses and development are moving into the area. Alterra Coffee Roasters will open in late winter or early spring 2006 in a vacant warehouse at 2941-2955 N. Humboldt Blvd. “Alterra believes strongly in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods,” says Lincoln Fowler, one of the owners. “We felt Riverwest was a neighborhood we wanted to be in.” The warehouse will be remodeled and will hold a bakery, a cafe, a coffee roasting facility and retail space. Besides Alterra, new businesses and housing sites are moving into other empty sites. Eight firms turned in proposals for the 2.8-acre former Johnson Controls site. Two finalists, Mequon-based General Capital and Chicago-based Tandem Developers have been selected. The finalists’ proposals include plans for environmentally friendly single-family homes. Does business and housing development mean that big box retailers, chain businesses, gentrification and over development are next? (“A Starbucks coming in would be horrible,” says The Tool Shed’s O’Herlihy). Riverwest is a good environment for business, says 3rd district Alderman Mike D’Amato, who doesn’t have many concerns about gentrification. All businesses on Center Street, for example, are locally owned, he says. Much-bemoaned high-price condominiums are beneficial for local businesses, D’Amato adds. “The more expendable income, the better it is for local entrepreneurs. Disposable income brings in consumers with money to buy products or eat at restaurants,” he explains. Big businesses aren’t per se the problem, says Shawn Smart. Smart is the founder of Humboldt Yards, a group that protested the construction of Jewel Osco on North and Humboldt avenues. “I think the problem was people were opposed to location of the main thrust; it was a cross roads of Riverwest,” she says. The group opposed the use of waterfront land that could have been used for local retail and green space. There’s a place for big box development, says Smart, but it is not on the waterfront. Others have doubts about the success of big business in Riverwest. Fears of big box retailers in Riverwest are unfounded, says Sargent. “It’s very hard to find places to put big box retailers,” he says. “One of the few is Capital Drive, but we’re running out of space… We might get a Target, but once we do that, we’ve kind of run out of room.” Worst come to worst, big box business can be fairly easy to compete with, he adds. A small hardware store next to a Wal-Mart actually has the advantage because the Wal-Mart has only a few shelves of tools, while the mom-and-pop store has a far better selection. Some business owners, like Fuel’s Johnson, have no concerns about gentrification and over development. Gentrification is an “evil word that’s bandied around,” he says. “Realistically, gentrification is just a nicer neighborhood, with more people caring about their property.” Besides, he adds, “the whole landscape of Milwaukee hasn’t been super receptive to chain-type businesses compared to other cities.” So where is business in Riverwest headed? For one, Riverwesters will have more opportunities to shop, drink and eat locally. Locally-owned business is advantageous for a neighborhood’s residents. “A plus is keeping money in the neighborhood, keeping it local,” says Mesich of the Riverwest Co-op. As to what Riverwest will become in a decade, who knows? “Center Street is never going to be successful if it tries to be Brady Street,” Sargent offers. However, more funky places like Club Timbuktu, Mad Plant, Onopa Brewing Company and Fuel Cafe may pop up, run by “people who want to be creative, don’t have a lot of capital,” says Sargent. “Riverwest is more risky, based on taste. Who knows what’s going to be there in ten years?” Perhaps doing business in Riverwest ultimately depends of what owners make of it. Don Krause, the owner of Art Bar, says that despite the occasional difficulties of owning a bar in the neighborhood, he has no complains. “It isn’t any harder to make a bar business in Riverwest than elsewhere in the city,” he says. “We’ve made a great core fan base that really enjoys coming here.” Is he getting rich? “No,” he says with a laugh. “But anytime you can keep your head above the water and survive in this business, you’re successful.”
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