Photo by Kat Schleicher
NEWaukee President Ian Abston, 28, is young, ambitious and every ounce an idealist. From the small town of Elkhart Lake to UW-Oshkosh and now Milwaukee, Abston has left a mark in his wake. There was the landscaping business in high school, the social group in college and now NEWaukee in Milwaukee, a 3-year-old organization holed up in the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall intent on getting young professionals to explore the city and work toward improving the place they call home. But events large and small aside (something he’s seemingly mastered), can this charismatic entrepreneur truly help implement change?
How did NEWaukee start?
The idea was, I have 20 great people that I know, and you have 20 great people that I want to know. We called a meeting in the basement of the Ale House and said: “Here’s an idea, we’re just going to try it out. There’s no mission. Let’s just get together and have as much fun in Milwaukee as we can.” That’s how it started. It’s definitely grown.
How many people do you attract for an event?
Anywhere from 250 to 6,000 for Oktoberfest. We shut down Old World Third Street and didn’t spend a dime on advertising. It was friends telling friends.
Do you all have day jobs?
This is now our day job. This is my full-time job. NEWaukee shares staff and office space in the Grand with Art Milwaukee. We’ve been offered to move out of the Grand to several other places, but we love the Grand Avenue Mall, and we’re really committed to the future of that area.
What other notable changes has NEWaukee endured over the past three years?
We’ve grown up a little bit. We’re a movement of young professionals aspiring to make the city a more vibrant place to live, work, play. One model is showcasing the city through unique event programming, and every month we partner with a new Milwaukee-based charity. An underlying factor, and we don’t promote this necessarily, is talent retention. We educate people in Milwaukee, but then they leave to go someplace where the magic is happening. Milwaukee has those assets, but we don’t communicate that we’re really vibrant and we have an active culture.
What does Milwaukee do well?
We have city pride. The community here, that’s why I’m drawn. The people, that’s what makes me want to stay.
What does Milwaukee not do well?
We’re a slow-to-change city, not very innovative by nature. We need our niche, and we’re struggling to find that. There’s conflict between local government and business leaders, and they’re no longer communicating as well as they used to or should. NEWaukee will never get political, but there are two issues we’ll fight tooth and nail on. And those are transit and water. For a city to attract younger people, you need a modern form of transit. I don’t care if it’s a streetcar, a light rail. The county bus system isn’t going to cut it. And we need to realize that water is going to be the epicenter of all things commerce in this city in the next 20 years. It’s going to be huge, and there are going to be jobs and industries created around that. We need to focus on those two things.
So what’s Milwaukee’s niche? Is there something we could really become known for?
One, water. We need to be the kings of water. Two, I think could be tech and innovation. We have a lot of small startup companies that are coming out of the universities – Incubator, 94labs, Spreenkler Talent Labs. If we connect the dots, we could really become an innovation hub. Once we peel back the layers and the old mentality, the old-waukee starts to go away, and we can integrate the ideas of the younger generation into what the city can become.
How do those ideas get to people who actually have the resources to implement change?
That’s a fantastic question, and I wish I knew the answer. Put effort into the younger demographic because we’re looking at things a different way. Give employees a chance to talk about their new ideas. Don’t just say “That’s a good idea, go for it.” Help them.
You’ve mentioned talent retention and Milwaukee’s failure to market itself well. How does this city become a place where you stay for your job?
I think we have that. Our generation, it’s not necessarily about the paycheck. It’s about that working environment. Can I work from home occasionally? Do I have flexibility?
Is that our generation though, or is that our generation in Milwaukee?
I think it’s our generation.