Reimagined Milwaukee Retail Scene Meets Consumer Lifestyle Needs

By Ray Balfanz, Outlook Management Group

What does Milwaukee bring to mind? Beer? Cheese? TV’s “Happy Days”? Perhaps the city chosen as the site for the 2020 Democratic National Convention?

Yes, that’s us — being recognized and happy about it. But since I began penning this piece in March, we’ve experienced a world of change in the realities of group gatherings: We can hardly have 10 people in a group now, let alone thousands of delegates filling our new Fiserv Forum. It’s anybody’s guess how long the multi-trillion-dollar brick-and-mortar retail industry will be effectively shuttered and how the industry will have changed when it’s over.

So without a crystal ball, I’m sharing Milwaukee’s story of how our retail developments have kept relevant for our consumers, while hoping for the best possible outcome once we’re on the other side of this coronavirus pandemic.

Ray Balfanz, Outlook Management Group

“A great place on a great lake” our tourism slogan once proclaimed — and indeed it is. Milwaukee is a largely undiscovered gem with excellent quality of life and endless spots at which to spend your hard-earned cash: a prolific culinary scene, first-rate arts offerings and vibrant retail.

From the reimagined Drexel Town Square, to redeveloped Bayshore, to the revitalized Historic Third Ward, Milwaukee is replete with refreshed shopping options.

Mall changes

The changes to the iconic American mall, especially as online shopping continues to alter consumer habits, are evidence of the need to stay relevant. Malls here have undergone numerous makeovers.

The oldest, Mayfair Mall, opened in 1958 with 70 stores and an ice rink — definitely “Happy Days.” Though Marshall Field’s and Boston Store departed, Macy’s has remained viable, and Mayfair boasts the highest sales of any Wisconsin mall and the state’s only Nordstrom, Crate & Barrel and The Container Store.

The tale of two suburban malls, Southridge and Northridge, both dating to 1970, illustrates two divergent paths. While Northridge began its downward spiral a decade after opening due to a cancelled freeway, recession and an increase in neighborhood crime, Southridge has continued to reinvent itself. When three anchors vacated, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Golf Galaxy opened. With a Macy’s, J.C. Penney and T.J.Maxx, Southridge has introduced entertainment: arcade, ping pong, pool, a dining cinema and The Explorium, a microbrew pub.

Similarly, Brookfield Square has implemented new-to-market “eatertainment” concepts: Chicago-based WhirlyBall’s 45,000-square-foot complex, bowling, laser tag, event space, dining and Wisconsin’s first “movie tavern,” a new concept from Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp.

The award for Milwaukee’s “most tumultuous retail property” goes to Grand Avenue downtown. Opened to great fanfare in 1982, retail was solid for two decades, but the suburbanite preference for easier-access shopping caused a traffic downturn. The Grand Avenue began hemorrhaging tenants and lost anchors Marshall Field’s and Boston Store. It’s now been bought and sold, foreclosed upon and auctioned. A local ownership group recently acquired it for $24.6 million, renaming it “The Avenue.” The mixed-use HUB 640 will fill the former Boston Store/BonTon headquarters with retail, office, healthcare and loft apartments.

Originally an enclosed mall, Bayshore was transformed 10 years ago into a “main street” concept. The year 2018 brought a $75 million redevelopment, replacing some retail space with offices, hotel, senior living, medical and apartments. The project is backed by city of Glendale public funding.

Rise of town squares

Responding to market demands is often easier for properties being built from the ground up. Construction began on Drexel Town Square’s 85-acre infill site in 2014, overcoming funding, resources and community support challenges. Built for community events and walkability, the town square is anchored by the Oak Creek City Hall, library and a Meijer store, and has outperformed expectations. Retail and service tenants branching off the square include U.S. Bank, Chick-fil-A and local favorites Pizza Man and Water Street Brewery, plus luxury apartments, hotel, senior living and a healthcare center.

Park, walk, commence shopping: that’s the drill at the successful Mayfair Collection — 500,000 square feet of retail anchored by Whole Foods, Nordstrom Rack, DSW and HomeGoods, as well as restaurants and apartments. Similar is the public/private partnership at the open air 84 South. Stores like Kohl’s, Total Wine, T.J.Maxx and Steinhafels furniture are flanked by apartments, medical and lodging.

We’ll end the tale of Milwaukee retail to date with a story of the old becoming new again: the Historic Third Ward renaissance. Adjacent to downtown Milwaukee and the lakefront Summerfest grounds (the site of the world’s largest music festival and many ethnic festivals), this roughly one-square-mile neighborhood of vintage red-brick buildings and new construction boasts 450 businesses, including many retail spots.

Known a century ago as the “Bloody Third” for frequent fist fights among Irish and Italian immigrants, it’s now arguably Milwaukee’s most exciting shopping locale, with aesthetic appeal enhancing myriad retail options. Art galleries, outdoor dining at locally owned gems like Bavette, DanDan and Benelux, along with names like Lululemon and Anthropologie attract millennials and Gen Xers, as well as Third Ward lawyers, artists and tech specialists.

What draws customers in Milwaukee is like anywhere else today: we expect our shopping experience to be part of a fulfilling lifestyle experience.

Welcome to Milwaukee, where customer-responsive retail, lifestyle choices and optimism for a bright future abound.

Ray Balfanz, CPM, ARM is president and principal of Outlook Management Group LLC AMO. This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine, a sister publication of Shopping Center Business.

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