Ellen Gilligan, President and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, reflects on the Sherman Park Phoenix, the model of development it demonstrates and how philanthropy can support community-led efforts.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but if I did, I expect it would show me how the Sherman Phoenix pioneered a model for economic inclusion and building community wealth that will be replicated in neighborhoods throughout Milwaukee.
The new development is magnificent not only for what it is, but how it came to be. Purposeful investment supported a visionary idea capable of meeting a neighborhood’s need while also fulfilling a community’s aspirations. For the Sherman Phoenix to realize its potential as a community hub providing economic benefit to tenant businesses and the surrounding area, philanthropy was essential: Close to a quarter of the funds for the multi-million-dollar project flowed through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and our donors.
We should both memorize this roadmap and create ways to make it easier for others to follow.
Sherman Phoenix opened in November, providing modern and vibrant commercial space for nearly 30 small businesses owned predominantly by people of color. The effort transformed the former BMO Harris Bank building, which was damaged by fire in the wake of a fatal police shooting in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
It has fast become a signature gathering place in which residents take genuine pride. It offers food, cultural, and health and wellness options valued by community members. Through mentoring and coaching, it helps local entrepreneurs grow their passions into viable businesses while creating new jobs for youth and others in the neighborhood. In addition, it’s a destination, capable of introducing more people to a part of the city they may not have otherwise visited. That makes it a catalyst for further economic activity.
Neighborhoods like Sherman Park – with 95 percent residents of color – were hit particularly hard by the loss of nearly half of all manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee between 1979-2000. The legacy of that loss is still felt in a neighborhood that has a disproportionate, 16 percent unemployment rate. Job creation and growth here could have a life-changing effect for many, which is why it is a focal point in the Foundation’s efforts to advance racial equity.
The rising of the Phoenix builds on a deep history of intentional investment. In Sherman Park, the Foundation has been an enduring presence – before, during and since the unrest that drew new attention to the neighborhood.
For years, Sherman Park was part of the Foundation’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, which provided significant funding supporting residents’ leadership and improving the livability of their community. Amid the unrest in 2016, the Foundation created the Reasons for Hope MKE Fund, which has provided 71 grants totaling more than $291,000 to support community-led solutions toward peace and relationship building. Many of our donors contributed to growing this fund for greater impact.
Looking forward, the Foundation is engaged in a new body of work, co-created with residents, to increase opportunities in neighborhoods facing barriers to revitalization. In Sherman Park East, residents have chosen youth engagement as their top priority for Foundation investment.
Sherman Park telegraphs the promising future of Milwaukee, where the economic engine hums not only downtown but across the metro area. I’m optimistic for many reasons:
- The Foundation’s support and leadership in MKE United, a community-wide partnership to ensure the catalytic development in downtown Milwaukee invigorates investment and shared prosperity in the neighborhoods bordering downtown and beyond.
- Donor and partner engagement in the Foundation’s impact investing program, which has provided new sources of capital to support 47 small businesses and create more than 85 jobs (directly and indirectly), not only in Sherman Phoenix but also through Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation and 5 Points Art Gallery & Studios, with more to come.
- Promising further alignment among strong community allies through our unprecedented partnership with the Medical College of Wisconsin, evaluating opportunities that would leverage co-location to increase social and economic inclusion and impact.
- Of course, our donors’ enduring love for this community and their intentional focus on expanding opportunity exceeds measure, and in 2019, I invite every willing soul to join us in changing more lives for the better.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but if I did, I’m confident I would see a greater Milwaukee where opportunity, prosperity and quality of life are rising. And I’m certain we’ll have gotten there by joining together.