Willie Smith is helping to breathe new life into abandoned and neglected areas in Milwaukee by harnessing the power of partnerships.
As executive director of the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation (NWSCDC), Smith and his partners are shepherding through innovative projects that are improving the urban landscape and creating economic opportunity.
“We’re looking to go in and be the convener. If there’s a neighborhood or community with opportunities for economic development, we’re trying to go in, bring other lenders to the table, and try to make these things happen,” Smith told Wisconsin Economic Summit, hosted by WEDC, in Appleton Oct. 24.
Smith’s group, for instance, helped finance Wisconsin’s first Black-owned Culver’s franchise and the first Black-owned gas station in the state.
“If we’re not bringing more folks into the fold, it’s almost impossible for us to deal with a lot of the issues that have taken place, especially in areas like Milwaukee and a number of areas throughout the state which have been subjected to disinvestment and loss of commerce and economic activity,” Smith added.
Often redevelopment projects start with small community-based organizations and business improvement districts that eventually find they don’t have the capacity, money, or knowhow to finish them, Smith said. That’s where NWSCDC can step in and bring its resources and investors to the table.
A current project involves the renovation of a long-vacant private school on North 40th Street. There, NWSCDC is working with ownership to provide financing and technical assistance to develop a nationally accredited child care center.
The project is structured to share ownership with the center’s employees. “Child care teachers don’t make much money. This is an opportunity for them to share the wealth of this facility,” he said.
In time, Smith said the center could convert its ownership to nonprofit status and seek funding to support the teachers and continue its work.
NWSCDC is also working to redevelop two long-vacant industrial buildings at 21st Street and North Avenue, forming a coalition among lenders, philanthropies, and government to try to leverage change.
The group makes loans typically between $250,000 and $1 million to make these projects a reality. Since Smith took the reins of the organization three years ago, it has lent close to $17 million to various projects and, to date, only one $80,000 loan is in default.
Smith said one reason the group has a low default rate is because it doesn’t just fund projects and walk away. It stays close to the projects, providing a significant amount of post-financing technical help.
“It’s a shame there’s only one Black-owned gas station in and one Black-owned Culver’s in Wisconsin,” he said. “We’re building coalitions so more of these things can happen. If we’re not in a place to move the needle forward, we’ll stay right where we are, which is not a place any of us are happy with.”