Photo by Sara Stathas
One of the more important chapters in the mythology of Newaukee begins on a warm night in 2011, on a sparsely developed wafer of land that juts out from the Milwaukee lakefront and into the low surf of Lake Michigan. The three young entrepreneurs most central to the story – Ian Abston, Jeremy Fojut and Angela Damiani – had set out to scout the peninsula two days ahead of what they’d advertised as Newaukee’s inaugural “Urban Island Beach Party,” an earnest fete to highlight the networking group’s considerable pull. Up to this point, the three had kindled an organization for young professionals and an affiliated one for creative workers, Art Milwaukee, on a part-time basis with surprising success. They were nothing if not confident, and Lakeshore State Park (as the peninsula located east of the Summerfest grounds is officially known) was to be the scene of their latest triumph.
Jamming down bike pedals, Damiani, Fojut and Abston rolled up and down the paths used by joggers and lunch-break walkers but found no bathrooms, no running water, and no electrical outlets, only a field of long grass, a small beach littered with goose dung and the jagged outline of the boulders that separate the landmass from Lake Michigan. A pleasant surprise the “island” was not, and tensions spilled over into anger. Anger spilled over into harsh words, and the three wondered: What the hell are we going to do with hundreds of partiers? This – sitting demoralized on a park bench, in the dark – was most definitely not what they’d had in mind for a “passion project.”
Two days of scrambling followed. Calling up friends, they secured a gas-powered generator and portable toilets and strung a pole with decorative lights, fake palm leaves and a pair of spotlights. This became the event’s central decoration, and the local musician hired to perform was forced to plug his amp into the chugging generator.
Still, as Abston, Fojut and Damiani looked back at the sun sinking behind the Downtown skyline, on the evening of what would, in the coming years, become one of Newaukee’s signature events, a nervous energy began to build. They’d tapped directly into the organization’s greatest asset – one of the widest social media circles in the city. If there’s one thing Newaukee and Art Milwaukee can produce, it’s 400 young professionals flushed with disposal income but still lacking in snot-nosed dependants.
As hundreds of curious partiers became thousands – nearly 3,000, they later estimated – the three realized that they had both been overrun and arisen triumphant. “It wasn’t really meant to be a festival,” Fojut says, but that’s what it became, and what they’d plan for with considerably more care when repeating the outdoor event in 2012 and 2013. “The island itself was the attraction,” he says.
The next day, Abston and the others spotted photos attendees had posted to Facebook showing the moon rising over the lakefront. “It was the perfect night,” he says, and the tide of partygoers that had swept across the island had christened Abston, Damiani and Fojut with “Moses” status as people-movers who could part a sea of young professionals.
In the following months, some of the area’s largest corporations, arts institutions and Mayor Tom Barrett himself would cuddle up to the organization that was avowedly pro-establishment – all three talk like marketing majors with bright futures ahead of them – while stirring a well of youth and seeming creativity. “I see them as the future of the city,” Barrett says without hesitation, and he hearkens back to a partnership with Newaukee that drew a few hundred smiling young adults to City Hall’s rotunda – and at no cost to the city. “Usually when the rotunda is full,” he says, “people are angry.”
In February, Art Milwaukee and Newaukee will formally consolidate their operations under the bright banner of “Newaukee,” with Damiani (the most administratively capable of the three) serving as executive director, Fojut (said to be a major source of the outfit’s stratagems) serving as “chief idea officer” and Abston (the glad-hander and relationship builder) remaining on the street, where he’ll continue to pound the sidewalks Downtown and around the city. At least one event announcing the union – which has so far remained de facto, despite behaving as a unified organization for some time – will also celebrate Newaukee’s fifth anniversary in a grand style.
Damiani says she’s imagining a marathon slideshow of photos from the approximately 150 events Newaukee throws each year, many falling to the responsibility of the sports, professional, “adventure” and other divisions staffed by volunteers. “I think we want it to be pretty epic,” she says.
And nothing less would do for an organization that’s grown so large so quickly. The ambitious, ambiguous “Creational Trails” project Newaukee and Art Milwaukee received a $350,000 grant to administer, with help from the Greater Milwaukee Committee, could become the group’s watershed moment or a colossal embarrassment, demonstrating the group’s inexperience and the very newness it takes such pride in.
“Creational Trails is a huge bite we’ve taken off,” Damiani says in the days before Halloween. And now it’s time to chew.