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Queen of Downtown
The mic belongs to urban envoy Beth (nee Nicols) Weirick.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

From removing gum and graffiti to planning Downtown Dining Week and overseeing large-scale economic development plans, Beth Weirick, formerly Nicols (as she’s billed everywhere these days), describes herself as a juggler. Her professional title, however, is executive director of Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21. For 14 years, she’s held the post, becoming an encyclopedia of Downtown history with an unparalleled passion for the city. But don’t just talk ideas with this 49-year-old. Get to implementing or get out. She’s here to get things done.

How did you get here?
When I think about what got me to Downtown Milwaukee, I think about my first concert. I can remember being 16 years old and taking the No. 10 bus Downtown to the MECCA to see Foghat and Boston, and I remember thinking that I was really sad about how our Downtown looked and felt. Growing up, my parents would take Sunday drives Downtown. I always had this connection, and I think that was a path I was meant to be on. My genuine love of this city was really what brought me where I am.

But if the city wasn’t what you’d hoped for on that trip down for your first concert, why all the love? Why did you decide to stay?
When you’re young, you don’t see barriers, you see opportunities. It was more of a struggle in the years I was at Westown Association and even in the early years of the BID because I always felt like Downtown was my baby, and you feel protective. Like, stop ripping on this girl. But there was this core of Downtown believers, and now what’s been beautiful is the evolution. Where did all these people come from who love our city and love our Downtown? I’m goosebumpy right now talking about it. We are building a city that we can and should be proud of. To be with an organization that is so visionary and so unbelievable and gutsy … I mean, really.

What does gutsy entail?
Sometimes to be a leading organization, you pick a path, have a vision, and you realize that you’ve got to roll up your sleeves. It takes a lot of work to achieve that vision. I really wish it were as simple and organic as people make it sound. Oh, it just happened overnight! Not really. I’m inspired by all of the great ideas that are being bantered about because, by God, what a gift we have now that people care that much. But you know what, the toughest job is implementation. And our organization is bold enough to say we’re going to do these things, and in five years, this is where we’re going to be, and watch and see. That’s what I think is gutsy.

In that five-year strategic plan, the goal is to become a renowned world-class city by 2017. Is that really possible?
I think we’re there already. We are a renowned world-class city, but it’s only for people who know about us. We all become the storytellers, and if you love your community, it doesn’t take a lot. It’s Milwaukee. It’s in Wisconsin. It’s on a Great Lake. We’re home to these Fortune 500 companies. You’ve heard of Harley-Davidson, haven’t you?

Why is everyone so focused now on improving the city?
There are a couple of different studies that add credibility to the whole fact of living in or near a city. It’s definitely a trend, not only nationally, but globally. Cities have once again become a magnet. Things are not so important anymore. Experiences are. Relationships are. Connectivity is.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the city over the last 14 years?
The enormous commitment from the community that wasn’t there before. Another huge change has been in our nighttime economy. People used to always say, “At 5 o’clock, you could roll a bowling ball down Wisconsin Avenue.” Now, I think what’s been beautiful is you go out and see our future leaders. These are the people who believe in the city. Communities sometimes say, “Oh, now we have all these problems with all these kids drinking and partying down here.” We look at it as, figure out how we build a strong framework for it, and then keep these young leaders tied to our city, connected to our community, and figure out ways to involve them in this continued evolution.

What are the biggest challenges facing the city?
It’s telling the story. But on a much larger level, we know property taxes are going to be an issue, public education is going to be an issue, safety is going to be an issue. It’s any of those issues that any major city destinations are going to be facing.

How do you stay excited about Milwaukee and your position after 14 years?
When my son was little, I’d always have to shush him, and he would say, “I can’t help it, there’s something inside of me!” And it just stuck with me because it’s inside of me. I love this city. And I genuinely love being a part of this revolution. It’s like a bottle of fine champagne. And that bottle is getting ready to burst.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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