The fall—and unlikely rise—of the Grand Avenue mall
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The Grand Avenue mall has been on life support for more than a decade, and its chances for survival look slimmer with each closing shop. Ideas about how to restore the former retail hub back to the condition of its glory days—from putting in a Super Target to building up office space—have been tossed around, though nothing has caught on yet. But the end of summer marked the time for business-minded folks to step aside and let the creatives try their remedies on the dying landmark. The result may be just what it takes to nurse the Grand back to health.
Creativity Works Here, a program designed to foster growth and development in Milwaukee’s creative industry as well as to spur retail growth in The Shops Of Grand Avenue, is the newest, most promising innovation to bring the space back to life. A partnership of The Shops Of Grand Avenue and Creative Alliance Milwaukee, Creativity Works Here is an effort to attract artists, creative groups, and small businesses to the vacant spaces in the Plankinton Building. The program offers low rent—starting at $300 per month including utilities—in addition to the opportunity for creative collaboration.
Jon Anne Willow, CEO of ThirdCoast Digest, says the program has already done a nice job of attracting businesses. “There are several people that we already work with, and even more people that it would be only natural for us to work with.”
ThirdCoast Digest was already in the process of moving from its Walker’s Point location to the Third Ward, but Willow changed her mind after touring the available spaces in the Plankinton Building. “We knew we were moving,” Willow says, “but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Grand Avenue.”
Darick Spears, owner of DDS Media, is launching his business from this space. Initially, he thought he could use the space as a studio but, as the idea of establishing a small media school unfolded, he’s now realized the location’s potential. “The Grand has kind of been dead for years,” Spears says. “But now I’m looking at it like we’ve got all these creative people, and we can actually lure a lot more people here.”
Spears says he immediately saw a vision for what he could do there, and reaching out to other creative minds might be just what the Grand needs to stay afloat. “Creative people find different ways of doing things out of the norm,” Spears says. He hopes this new approach will help the Grand reach more than just the downtown community, and foster excitement throughout the city.
The downtown mall is in a central location with skywalks connecting office buildings, four hotels, and a convention center. Willow says she sees a lot of foot traffic coming through the Plankinton Building every day, and people repeatedly stop in to learn more about the program, and about the artists and businesses themselves. “I think it is fostering a lot of good feelings with people who work downtown already, and I think that’s a great start,” Willow says.
What may have seemed like a last-ditch effort to revitalize a dying location has turned into quite the project. It’s already more successful than any of the other proposals that have tried to breathe life into the space. If it works, Milwaukee may not have to pull the plug on Grand Avenue after all.