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Cream City Goes Green

May. 30, 2017
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Bob Wills was a teenager on the first Earth Day—April 22, 1970—and he still remembers the significance of that event. He later went on to work for Earth Day founder, Gaylord Nelson, a staunch environmental activist who also was Wisconsin’s 35th governor and a U.S. Senator.

Given Wills’ history, it’s no surprise that the longtime owner of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis., wanted to go green when converting a former Historic Third Ward brownfield site into what is now Clock Shadow Creamery.

“There had never been a cheese factory in Milwaukee, which I found weird,” Wills says. “This was really an opportunity to see how far we could push the environmental angle.”

Today, five years after the 5,000-square-foot Clock Shadow Creamery opened at 138 W. Bruce St., it has become a model of urban sustainability. The building, constructed with mostly recycled materials, features geothermal walls for more efficient heating and cooling, boasts a rooftop vegetable garden with cisterns that collect rainwater used to flush the creamery’s toilets, and houses a four-story elevator that generates electricity on the way down to power trips back up. And many of the company’s local deliveries are made via bicycle.

Individuals like Liz Wessel, a Madison-based planner of eco-friendly travel packages and owner of Green Concierge, are paying attention to what Clock Shadow Creamery and other sustainable Milwaukee businesses are doing—and she’s telling others about them.

“People who are interested in green tourism live their lives a certain way and take that lifestyle with them when they travel,” Wessel says. “They seek out green destinations.”

That’s one reason why the Grohmann Museum, an art gallery on the Milwaukee School of Engineering campus dedicated to the evolution of work, is so popular among visitors, according to James Kieselburg II, the museum’s director. Since 2008, a green roof atop the Grohmann covered with plants and grass has kept the building cooler in the summer and helped conserve energy. The planters, six to eight inches deep, consume rainwater and reduce the amount of storm water runoff that enters the city’s sewer system.

The rooftop, which allows for stellar views of Lake Michigan and also features a dozen 1,000-pound, 9-feet-tall bronze sculptures of men toiling in different types of labor, has become a destination for several organizations’ special events, and Visit Milwaukee heavily promotes it to convention groups and tourists. The rooftop also is the starting point for most museum tours.

“That sets the tone for what visitors are going to see in the gallery, because the rooftop statues are inspired by smaller works in our permanent collection,” Kieselburg says. “The roof is a main part of the tour, and it has exceeded our expectations because of its uniqueness and accessibility.”


The Year of Sustainable Tourism

The United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. According UN World Tourism Organization Secretary-General Taleb Rifai, that designation gives communities and businesses “a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental.”

Or, as Wills more succinctly puts it: “What we’re doing gives people ideas about things they can incorporate into their lives and homes. But there’s also a widespread awareness that the earth is in jeopardy if we continue to do things that we’ve always done.”

Although the definition has changed over the years, “ecotourism” is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education,” according to the International Ecotourism Society.

In 2006, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism created the “Travel Green Wisconsin” certification to promote smart, environmentally friendly business practices. The first-of-its-kind program has paved the way for sustainable travel programs in other states, and many Milwaukee institutions are on the list of Travel Green Wisconsin-certified businesses.

They include Great Lakes Distillery, the Harley-Davidson Museum, MillerCoors Brewery Tour and Miller Park. Several hotels, including The Pfister and Holiday Inn Express Airport, are also certified, as is the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, which is involved in a biodigester project that converts food waste (including whey from Clock Shadow Creamery) into renewable energy.

“Milwaukee is a great example of an urban area with lots of ecotourism aspects,” Wessel says, pointing to such local amenities as the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, a variety of urban trails and plans for the Milwaukee Streetcar, which is expected to begin providing service in late 2018. “The people of Milwaukee are doing a lot of what needs to be done, and that is making the city a better destination for all of us.”

Milwaukee-area residents obviously can boost ecotourism locally by supporting green businesses, but they also can participate in the movement during their own travels this summer.

Wessel, who has appeared on The Weather Channel and in USA Today, recommends travelers research sustainable businesses located in their destination city and plan to patronize them. “A lot of great places exist all over, but you wouldn’t know about them unless you looked for them,” she says. “A walking tour should be the first thing you do in a new city. And don’t get a car until you need a car. You can learn much more about a location and its people when you’re rubbing shoulders with everyday people using the public transit system.”

Renting bicycles, dining at restaurants that promote farm-to-table menu options, and staying at local bed and breakfast locations that work with sustainability partners are other ways to be effective ecotourists, she adds.

More businesses also are emphasizing their sustainability components to local residents. On every Clock Shadow Creamery tour, Wills or another employee makes it a point to educate visitors about the cheese-making process, the history of making cheese, the company’s role in the community and the green decisions that inspire how the business operates.

Ecotourism is expected to play an increasing role in local economies, regardless of the Trump administration’s environmental policies, Wessel predicts. Why? Because the movement has fostered a connection between business owners, patrons and visitors that cannot easily be broken.

“That sense of community is not going away,” she says.


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