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Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010

The Community Warehouse

Re-imagining and rebuilding Milwaukee

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Traveling from Downtown to Community Warehouse’s near South Side facility is like exploring some sort of strange historical timeline: Everywhere you look, there is evidence of earlier examples of redevelopment approaches in Milwaukee. Driving through the center of the city one sees the proof of 1960s-era urban renewal in such structures as Juneau Village. Crossing the Sixth Street Viaduct, the Potawatami Bingo Casino and the Harley-Davidson Museum stand as examples of Milwaukee’s strategy to rebrand the city as a tourist destination. Arriving in Walker’s Point, rehabbed industrial buildings now house corporate offices as part of the city’s attempt to embrace the logic of the “post-industrial” economy.

These projects have met various levels of success, but they all share one common denominator: They have done little to help the city’s most vulnerable residents. Urban redevelopment often means the displacement of low-income individuals and families, and that characteristic has marked many renewal efforts in Milwaukee. At the same time, there is a sense that these strategies also haven’t done enough to stem the tide of disinvestment within the city. Abandoned structures now dot the city’s landscape as local government struggles financially to keep its head above water.

It is within this troubled environment that groups like Community Warehouse have the potential to remake the city. Located in the building that once housed the Blackhawk Tannery, Community Warehouse (521 S. Ninth St.) shares a block with a host of vacant structures. From Ninth Street, the group’s home looks rather unremarkable: I had driven by it a host of times without ever noticing it. Yet what is happening inside of Community Warehouse is remarkable. The former tannery has been transformed into a sort of D.I.Y. Home Depot, with shelves upon shelves stocked with new home and facility improvement materials. From windows to doors to paint and even bathtubs, Community Warehouse has it in stock.

And there is a specific customer base for such an inventory. Community Warehouse is a membership organization, with members consisting of community residents, nonprofit organizations, and property owners who live and work within a zone marked for redevelopment by Milwaukee’s Community Development Grants Administration—a space that extends north to Silver Spring Road, south to Cleveland Avenue, west to 60th Street, and east to First Street. These members—who come from some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods—can purchase home improvement materials at a price approximately 75% off original retail value.

Making It Work

How can the group offer this deep discount? By relying, in great part, on the donations, both material and financial, of a host of manufacturers, retailers, builders, corporations, philanthropic organizations and individuals. But Community Warehouse is also incredibly well run, with two of its chief leaders, Executive Director George Bogdanovich and General Manager Brent Halfwassen, coming from the corporate world. Despite its social goals, Community Warehouse is run like a business.

This approach sets Community Warehouse apart from many of its redevelopment peers. Another point of difference? The group, as Halfwassen stresses, has never taken any city, state or federal money. This position is not due to any anti-government animus, since tax-exempt status is an indirect government subsidy. Rather, they want the flexibility that comes from non-governmental donations.

“I didn’t want them [the government] to give me a bunch of regulations—what I could and couldn’t do,” Bogdanovich explains.

“I don’t think government is the answer. I’m not even sure that organizations like ourselves are a part of the answer,” Halfwassen notes. “It’s not like the private sector is the answer either. There almost has to be a cultural mentality shift.”

At the heart of this shift is the fact that we must believe urban redevelopment can be a bottom-up endeavor, with neighborhood residents playing crucial roles in rebuilding their immediate surroundings. Community Warehouse is thinking small. But it is on this micro-level where true community is built—figuratively and, in the case of the efforts of Community Warehouse to improve the homes of the city’s poorest inhabitants, literally as well.


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