But a critical part of its mission, the Innovations and Wellness Commons incubator, is about to grow.
The Commons opened in 2015 in a former nightclub at 1617 W. North Ave. with room for four businesses. The current tenants are a commercial kitchen used by the Milwaukee Center for Independence to prepare meals for schools; Basia Rose Designs, a custom boutique focusing on dresses and alterations; and an administrative office for the Fondy Food Center, host of the Fondy Farmers Market.
A fourth, Shindig Cofee (formerly Juice Kitchen), closed this year to focus on its second location at the Sherman Phoenix. Whether tenants stay long term or move on to new endeavors, Walnut Way views The Commons as an incubator for transformation in the neighborhood.
A second, $3 million phase was set to break ground in September next door. Walnut Way has eight spots for businesses (seven of them committed at press time) focusing on health and wellness – think counseling, dietitian services and an education center for pathways into health care careers. The nearly 8,000-square-foot site will include a rooftop space for meetings and relaxation.
Health services will address significant need in Lindsay Heights, Walnut Way officials point out. One example: A recent federal mental health treatment directory lists zero such facilities in the neighborhood’s ZIP codes of 53205 and 53206.
“The opportunity to be able to access resources that allow folks to take self-care to a deeper level is very important,” says Antonio Butts, Walnut Way’s executive director and a Lindsay Heights native.
But the entrepreneurship aspect of The Commons is just as critical. The stagnation on North Avenue – Walnut Way estimates 55% of retail storefronts in the Lindsay Heights swath of the street are vacant – affects the entire community. “That’s going to impact walkability, that’s going to impact local jobs … crime, physical activity, safety, stress. All those things are impacted by a commercial corridor, whether it’s vacant or whether it’s thriving,” says Walnut Way Program Director Tyler Weber.
After almost four years of running her custom sewing business, Basia Rose Designs, out of her Wauwatosa home, 29-year-old Basia Spencer moved into The Commons last December. Business is almost too good – to catch up, she adjusted her store hours and stopped taking custom orders for a few weeks in August.
At first, she was a little skeptical of the location, but she believes the neighborhood will improve, and she is excited to be a part of that. “Phase two might inspire others to join and make a difference,” Spencer says.
Butts notes that Lindsay Heights was known for a strong economy and African- American community in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, but the decline in manufacturing hit the neighborhood particularly hard.
“A lot of the work that we do is focused on adapting to those changes in a way that offers a pathway to that vibrancy that folks remember about the area,” Butts says.