Remembering Gary Grunau: The Man Who Transformed the Milwaukee River into a Destination

Even if you didn’t know Gary Grunau personally, you know his work. He fought to transform the Milwaukee River into a destination, was a leader in the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. business park project and was a thoughtful man who will be missed in the community.

Renowned Milwaukee real estate developer Gary Grunau led many key projects that have transformed the city where he spent his entire life. The redevelopment of the former Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. complex in downtown Milwaukee and the sparkling riverfront building that houses the international headquarters of global staffing firm ManpowerGroup are among Grunau’s signature projects.

But his extensive efforts in creating the downtown RiverWalk became the crowning achievement for Grunau, who died early Wednesday morning at age 80 following a two-year battle with brain cancer.

The Man Behind the RiverWalk

“We would not have the RiverWalk if not for Gary Grunau,” Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux says.

While the RiverWalk began along the Milwaukee River, it has since expanded to include the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers.

“It really unites us to the water and really helps us as we become a water-centric city,” Marcoux says.

Grunau spent nearly a quarter century transforming riverfront development.

“People laughed at the idea of turning the river into a destination,” Marcoux explains. “It had been part of our industrial legacy, hidden in plain sight, so to speak. Nobody found the river to be attractive. But the RiverWalk unlocked billions of dollars in development in the city.”

Grunau fostered relationships between the private and public sectors in making the RiverWalk a reality, Marcoux says.

“That was the magic of Gary,” he says. “Gary was a collaborator. He brought people together and he didn’t take no for an answer. He was persistent, particularly if it was something that he believed strongly about. It’s hard to overstate his contributions to the city of Milwaukee. It’s rare for a private individual to have as much influence on any given city as Gary has had on Milwaukee.”

Riverwalk in the Third Ward; photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

Where He Left His Mark

Grunau’s passing will be felt “far and wide,” Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman says.

“It is difficult to travel even a few blocks through downtown without seeing an important Milwaukee building or space that wasn’t touched in some way by Gary,” Bauman says. “It is evident that Gary Grunau cared deeply about Milwaukee and his work and leadership helped transform spaces for the betterment of Downtown and the city as a whole.”

Other Grunau projects have included the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Wisconsin Center, Discovery World and the former Time Warner Building.

His projects captured numerous awards, including the National Council for Urban Economic Development Award of Excellence, considered among the world’s highest honors from land use experts, for the Milwaukee RiverWalk, which Grunau described as one of the most meaningful awards during his career.

Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy describes Grunau as a “visionary leader” who led several key development deals in the city.

“His acumen and leadership played a big part in making so many important developments happen,” Murphy says. “I found Gary to be an engaged, passionate and thoughtful business leader – and a good person.”

Grunau exhibited a knack for diving into one project while already seeking out another.

“Gary was not one to rest on his laurels,” says Bruce Block, lifelong friend and colleague. “As soon as he finished up one difficult transaction, he was on to the next. There was no problem or challenge that he believed was insurmountable. He had boundless energy, and he had a boundless hope that he could make things better.”

The transformation of the sprawling property that once served as the home of the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co., which shuttered its operations in 1981, set the standard for future development in Milwaukee, Marcoux says.

“It was important for bringing jobs downtown and all of the things that we would generally associate with a development of that size and magnitude,” Marcoux says. “What was even more important was that it demonstrated that adaptive reuse could be successful in our city on a large scale. If you look over the last 30 years, a lot of developments are actually redevelopments of existing property.”

His Vision For Milwaukee

Even after his devastating cancer diagnosis, Grunau continued to fight for social causes.

“Our father, grandfather and husband fought this battle as he lived his life, with kindness, humor, fortitude, integrity, humility and the utmost dignity” his son, John Grunau, says. “His witty humor, sly wink, sound advice and thoughtful gestures are gone for now, but remain in our hearts forever.”

Grunau’s passion for Milwaukee ran deep, through his developments and social and educational causes, and are sure to have a lasting impact.

He led and served on numerous boards including Discovery World, Milwaukee Academy of Science, Alverno College Board, Milwaukee Riverwalk District, Sprit of Milwaukee and Greater Milwaukee Committee. He received numerous awards, including the Milwaukee Press Club’s 2018 Headliner Award, as well as the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District’s Champion Award and Visit Milwaukee’s Lamplighter Award.

Lori Richards, partner and president at Mueller Communications, served with Grunau on the Discovery World board of directors.

“He would make it a point to tell me how happy he was that I was a part of the group because, well, he was kind in that way, but also because I believe he was excited to see someone who represented a new generation, a new set of hopes and dreams for our city, join the conversation,” Richards says. “I really only knew Gary in the twilight years of his career, but I was struck that this was a consistent message for him: we must be looking ahead to the future and to the next generation to be sure we’re creating a diverse, inclusive, vibrant city for all.”

Richards said she first met Grunau years earlier when he was honored at a Public Relations Society of America dinner.

“I’ll never forget his message about doing the right thing to move the city forward and encouraging us to not let fear hold this city back from what it could be.” 

Friends and family will gather from 3 to 6 p.m. on Sept. 29 at the Pilot House at Discovery World, 500 N. Harbor Drive, Milwaukee.  Visitation will continue on Sept. 30 from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 N. Jackson St., in downtown Milwaukee, followed by a memorial mass at 11:00 am.  In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Gary P. Grunau “Good for Milwaukee” Fund at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, 101 W. Pleasant St., Ste 210, Milwaukee, 53212.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.