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Kristi Luzar helps businesses of all sizes, from home canners to major banks.

In the grand scheme of things, the Urban Economic Development Association, led by executive director Kristi Luzar and based out of an office on North Martin Luther King Drive, is a little-known organization, but it’s an important one. UEDA commands a variety of community projects, such as the Take Root Initiative spawned by Mayor Tom Barrett’s Foreclosure Partnership, and acts as the guy-behind-the-guy-behind-the-guy for many economic development and neighborhood groups throughout the city, including some large banks that are required under federal law to make investments in lower-income communities. A few have already received large fines for not meeting federal standards.

“At our quarterly meetings, we ask them to come and talk about it and tell our members what happened,” says Luzar, who started at UEDA in 2006 and later was deputy to longtime director Bill Johnson. “It’s become a place of trust to have hard conversations.”

Tell me about the project you worked on to improve people’s credit.

When I started at UEDA in 2006, my primary focus was asset building. I had a group of residents and asked them, what do you want to do? They said, “We want to learn how to improve our credit. We want to be able to teach other people in our neighborhood how to do that. A lot of people want to buy homes.” So we brought in Money Smart, which is a training curriculum by the FDIC, and trained the trainer. We did monthly workshops that were led by residents, and there was a core group that bought homes, improved their credit and helped other people get out of debt. One of the residents is now a financial coach and a Realtor.

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How did you break the ice with this group of people?

The first meeting was really painful. Bill Johnson, UEDA’s director at the time, had a long history in doing facilitating, and we asked everybody at the meeting what was their interest in being there. And what do they think would make something like this fail. The first few answers were like, “Oh, we want to make neighborhoods better.” Very altruistic. Then Bill forced people to say, no, what is your individual interest in being here? And people said, “We need to serve low to moderate income people better. We have lots of foreclosed homes in our neighborhoods, and this is bad.” It became more honest.

Is it easy to gain people’s trust in the community, or do you encounter some skepticism?

We have a lot of trust, but I know when I talk to people, they’re tired of being asked to come to meetings and provide input [and then] feel like they’re not at the table. That was a lot of the feedback we got at our summit this past October, and we passed it along to the MKE United group. If they really want to engage people in meaningful ways, they have to do more than invite people to meetings. They have to invite them to be a part of the power structure.

What do small businesses say is missing in Milwaukee?

The issue that comes up most often is capital. There’s a lot of activity in the service space, people opening up barber shops, beauty salons, auto mechanics, things that people like to have in their neighborhood. Having kiva.org [a micro-loan website] come into this city has been transformative, particularly in the food space. Restaurants have a very difficult time finding financing. I’ve been told people feel like the Milwaukee food space is very supportive. For other small businesses, I’m not sure if they have networks like that. I’ve been doing some interviewing to find out how they find resources, and often they don’t, or it’s through people they know. ◆

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‘Brick By Brick’ appears in the June 2017 (City Guide) issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning May 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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