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Nancy O’Keefe: Guiding the Third Ward to Success

May. 3, 2016
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The Third Ward has come a long way in the 20 years since Nancy O’Keefe took charge as executive director of the Historic Third Ward Association (HTWA). In 1996 the neighborhood had started to emerge from the shadows: The Broadway Theatre Center with its spectacular Cabot Theatre was drawing audiences into the ward at night; La Boulangerie brought contemporary European flair to a neighborhood that had not been known for fine food since the days of Little Italy; and the annual Third Ward Art Festival had already joined the roster of Milwaukee’s outdoor events; but many buildings and storefronts remained empty. Building on the success of her predecessors, O’Keefe has overseen the Third Ward’s transformation from a district with growing potential into an urban success story.

What do you see as the greatest turning point on the road to the Third Ward’s success?

I think the biggest turning point was when we actually got the Milwaukee Public Market in the ground. We built the second parking structure and the Riverwalk while fundraising for the market. It’s crazy—it took us 10 years to raise money to build the Public Market. After 10 years of community fundraising, constructing the Public Market was a pivotal point in the Third Ward’s success.

What is your vision for the Third Ward’s future? What will it look like in five years?

Oh gosh I have no idea. New buildings, more public space, more people getting off the streetcar and shopping and dining in our restaurants! Oh, and we really do need a grocery store and a drug store.  

Do you see any obstacles or challenges to the continued progress of the Third Ward?

Making sure we keep our neighborhood safe and clean. Once the ward is built out we will need to continue providing the same services we do now—security, cleanliness. We will also need more parking and perhaps to enlarge the parking shuttle service we already have in place. For the past 40 years we have worked through the challenges and obstacles we’ve had and I don’t think it will be any different. We just keep plugging away.

At this stage in development, what can the City of Milwaukee do to assist the Third Ward?

Well they’ve already done a lot to assist us, I will tell you that. They’re really good partners and we work well together. I think they’re doing what they should be doing. If we want to do something, we always talk to the city and we come up with a solution, and they’re always very helpful.

Anything else you’d like to say about the 40th anniversary of the HTWA?

It’s so funny—40 years and I’ve been there for 20 of them. I’ve been there half of the time, and when I started really realizing that I was like, oh my goodness. Am I old, eh? 20 years! Well we’ve had a lot of success and I hope we continue. It takes a lot of people to run the neighborhood and we do have good people; we have good board members, we have good participation with the city and we’ve got to just keep trucking. We’re happy to see so many people discovering the Third Ward.

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