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New Leadership Comes to an Ever-Changing East Side

Sep. 12, 2017
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Kristin Godfrey (on right), the executive director of the East Side Business Improvement District, at Tomato Romp 2017.

Another big change recently happened on the East Side. It wasn’t the announcement of another luxury apartment building testing the limits of Milwaukee’s real estate market, and it didn’t cause the uproar of a nearly four-decades-old beer bar rebranding into a trendy cocktail lounge. But the long-term effects could prove to be much greater and more far-reaching.

Jim Plaisted, who took the reins as the East Side Business Improvement District’s (BID’s) executive director when it formed in 1999, stepped down in July to take the equivalent role at the Historic Third Ward Association. Kristin Godfrey, a marketing consultant who had previously served on the East Side BID’s board of directors, was announced as his replacement on Wednesday, Aug. 16. This leadership shift in an organization that Plaisted once said “gives strong local control to the commercial district to execute a plan,” could mark a turning point for the East Side at a pivotal time for the area.

The gravity is not lost on Godfrey, who wants to bring a fresh perspective to the position. “Jim has done wonderful things for the East Side, but I’m not trying to repeat what Jim has done,” she said. “He’s already done it and done it really well. I’m trying to go in with my own spin and my own take and develop a role that works for today in 2017, for what the board needs and what the neighborhood needs.”

BIDs are defined by the City of Milwaukee as “strong partners in the city’s efforts to develop strong commercial, residential and industrial areas of the city that create jobs and a higher quality of life in Milwaukee.” The entities are funded and operated by businesses, property owners and community members located within the district.

To Godfrey, this means her job, along with the rest of the board, is to build a support system for East Side businesses and residents through marketing and events initiatives, listening sessions and enhancing the aesthetics of the neighborhood. “A friend of mine joked that I was now the mayor of the East Side,” Godfrey joked. “Though I don’t think that’s my title, it sort of is the responsibility of the BID.” Attracting new businesses to the area is another big part of what the BID does, and it is increasingly crucial given the number of businesses in the area that have closed in recent years.


Balancing Night and Day in the Neighborhood 

Godfrey is well aware of the rumblings—which have in recent months seemed more like roars—that the East Side is “dying.” “I’m so tired of hearing it,” she said. “It’s not! I’m working on the Tomato Romp right now, and we have 10 bars involved that you can go and have a Bloody Mary at. Tell me that that’s not a lot in any other neighborhood.” 

While she acknowledges that there were more bars participating in the event in previous years, she says that this is a part of the East Side’s ongoing shift towards a balance of day and night attractions—an initiative that was repeatedly championed by her predecessor.

The change in demographics, housing and types of businesses coming to and leaving the East Side has been the subject of many conversations in Milwaukee recently. Screams of gentrification can be heard from bars to Internet comment threads across the city, but Godfrey seems to see the response to these changes as overblown.

“I read a negative comment in some article saying that all we’re trying to do is attract young professionals and the money that they have,” she said. “That’s not true. The [new apartment] buildings probably do appeal more to them, but there are people of every age that live there. When people say that the demographics are changing here, my answer would be that they are always changing everywhere. The Third Ward is changing, and I don’t think people see that as negative. I think it’s just that [the East Side] has been a stalwart for so long that people don’t know what it’s like to watch it change. It feels like your mom is changing.”

While painful for some, to Godfrey the changes are necessary to keep the neighborhood at the forefront of entertainment in the city. “The East Side has been cool for decades,” she said. “It’s not like other neighborhoods. It’s always been cool, which means it’s always been changing. It’s certainly not the same area that it was 90 years ago, but it was cool then. When we look at what the board wants, it’s that we want that continued evolution that makes sense for the neighborhood—the people that live here and what the city needs as a whole.”

Her vision for the area involves businesses building around their particular niches. A few of the businesses she sees successfully drawing what she calls “niche circles” include The Back Room at Colectivo, The Jazz Estate, Landmark Lanes, Nine Below Mini Golf and the Oriental Theater. “I don’t want to be everything to everyone,” she said. “No business ever wants to do that. But I do want to have a space where many businesses can be what people need, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

As of now, the status of North Avenue being a space where many businesses can “be what people need” is up for debate, at least in the nightlife category. The large commercial buildings that housed The Schoolyard, BBC, The Hotel Foster and Rosati’s are all still vacant, and only time can tell if the two new restaurants taking over the spaces left by Rascal’s and The Winchester this month will be successful.

There have been a few small victories in recent months. D.P. Dough, a calzone chain, is planning to open a location at 1515 E. North Ave., across the street from UW-Milwaukee’s Cambridge Commons. Jet’s Pizza, a chain with locations in 20 states, will open at 1857 E. Kenilworth Place, which was most recently occupied by Melthouse Bistro.

For now, Godfrey is focusing on settling into her new role at the helm of a changing neighborhood. “There are definitely things in the works,” Godfrey said. “It’s not just sitting dead, but everything takes time to get the pieces lined up.”


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