Practice, practice, practice. The longer I live in Riverwest, the more I see people practicing their passions in ways both obvious and quiet. I see it in the dedicated musicians honing their talents, artists creating and enhancing their work and living spaces, teachers nurturing and thinking and communicating, farmers and gardeners enriching our urban surroundings with green places and feeding both soul and body; bikers and beekeepers, animal lovers and networkers, caretakers and volunteers. With springtime finally taking hold after the arduous winter, I’m sure you see it too, whether you live in Riverwest or Harambee, West Allis or the East Side – all over this wonderful old town we all call home, folks are putting into practice their ideas, wishes and dreams.
In the springtime spirit of blossoming interest and energy being put to work, we at would like to highlight a decades-old operation whose practice has been both obvious and quiet.
For more than 20 years, Riverworks Center has been engaged in the practice of business and residential community redevelopment in our area. Originally known as NMIDC (Northeast Milwaukee Industrial Development Corporation), the organization’s focus was on bringing industry and jobs back to an area that had just taken a big hit when American Motors Corporation closed its doors.
Chris Grandt, the Director of Neighborhood Development at Riverworks, explained that the organization “was formed in 1992, largely in response to the 1988 closing of the AMC facility,” the auto assembly and parts plant situated on a parcel of roughly 35 acres near Richards Street and Capitol Drive. “Obviously there were a lot of jobs lost and it became kind of a ghost town there.” At the same time, a lot of the smaller manufacturers that had supplied AMC were struggling.
“The Riverwest Industrial Council, the City of Milwaukee and WISPARK pulled together and said ‘we really need to focus on this campus, focus on this area,’” Grandt continued. “NMIDC was involved with all these other partners in the purchasing of the AMC site. It was the first redevelopment of industrial land in the state of Wisconsin.” This was before the public was knowledgeable about brownfields; as a matter of fact, the EPA’s Brownfields Program wasn’t launched until 1995.
Grandt explained that there are three groups that make up Riverworks Center. The first one is RDC (Riverworks Development Corporation), which helped develop a retail corridor along Capitol Drive with a shopping center and the Goodwill at Palmer Street, using the land that used to be the home of the AMC plant. RDC’s goal is to increase community prosperity by building strong public, private and community partnerships that help create jobs and link neighborhood residents with area employers.
Combined with their two Business Improvement Districts (BIDs 25 and 36), Riverworks Development Corporation is really able to get things accomplished. “The idea is that the City can only do so much, and if you want to do more, how do you do that? So around 1999 or 2000, we went through the public process to get this economic development tool – the BID .” Riverworks also manages an accessible grant program designed to incentivize building owners to upgrade their building’s facades.
Run by property and business owners and working with Riverworks to administer what they do, BIDS work with the Department of Public Works to do landscape restoration, provide grants to businesses for property improvement, and even remove graffiti for free.
Riverworks also has a Financial Opportunity Center (FOC), which Grandt describes as a “bundled approach” to workforce issues faced by businesses: new hires and worker retention. Through the FOC, clients receive financial coaching, help getting access to public benefits, and workforce coaching.
According to Grandt, “It’s a one-stop-shop that’s more than a job placement center. The FOC is not a temp agency. Rather, we want to develop a long-term relationship with neighborhood residents. We make a commitment to them, and they make one to us.”
Who’s Who at Riverworks
Grandt describes himself as “only the operations guy – Darryl Johnson is the executive director and is really the guiding force behind what we do.”
With the arrival of Johnson (who grew up and still resides in the Harambee neighborhood) in 2003, Riverworks began to focus on a larger area than that original 35 acres of the old AMC plant. They won various awards and recognition for their achievements in the late 1990s and early 2000’s as the NMIDC, then in 2004 the organization changed its name to Riverworks Development Corporation. That year, the Riverworks Commons Shopping Center was completed. In 2008, the Financial Opportunity Center was established; 2010 brought the completion of the Holton/Keefe Streetscape Project as well as the Beerline Recreational Trail.
In 2012, Riverworks celebrated 20 years of serving Milwaukee while completing their first housing project, the Riverworks Lofts. Located at 3372 N Holton St, Riverworks Lofts is an adaptive reuse housing project that transformed a vacant, functionally obsolete industrial building into 36 loft-style apartments. The lofts boast amenities like central air, in-unit washers and dryers, exposed brick walls and high ceilings – and the rents are reasonable at prices between $600 and $790.
Artwork and Flowers
Last year, volunteers from Rockwell Automation joined Riverworks for a fourth year in beautifying the Harambee neighborhood by designing, building, planting and installing flower boxes for over a dozen residents.
After they were awarded a Mary Nohl Grant by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, they partnered with Riverwest artist Marina Lee (from Beginning Dreams Forever) to create community developed art for the green space in the Five Points area (the intersection where Keefe Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Atkinson Avenue, Port Washington Road and 6th Street come together). Marina worked with area kids to collect their ideas and transform them into large and colorful pieces of freestanding artwork.
Riverworks continues its practice of bringing good things our way in 2014. In January, they got into community organizing and hired Riverwest’s own long-time organizer Jan Christensen to help them expand into that role. They also administer the grant for Leif Otteson, the community organizer for Harambee’s Great Neighborhood Initiative.
In 2015, Riverworks aims to have the northerly extension of the Beerline trail completed all the way up to Capitol Drive. A community meeting about the extension just took place April 23 at the Riverworks Lofts; stay tuned to this paper for further updates!
“We’ve already got young farmers who are excited about using that trail extension to transport food by bike up to the Outpost on Capitol,” said Riverwest organizer Jan Christensen.
Riverworks Center is a very busy resource for our community. For more details about what they offer, make sure to visit them online at riverworksmke.org.