by Barb Haig
“Don’t be afraid of change. You may end up losing something good, but you will probably end up gaining something better.”
It’s unclear who said that first, but the hope is that’s exactly what’s going on in Washington Heights North Avenue and Vliet Street shopping districts. While retail outlets on both streets are expanding and moving, at least one is closing. Business owners and operators are excited about the changes – but also concerned about attracting customers. Here’s a look at several stores:
5407 W Vliet St.
Status: Expanding location to the east to include a boutique lighting showroom that will feature unique chandeliers, pendants and sconces.
Owner Mitchell Conklin: “I’m looking to do somethinga little bit different by featuring a small collection of very special lighting fixtures that will represent the quality and finish of a few manufacturers, with items for customers brought in on a special order basis. We’ll also include some accent furniture and gift items to help stimulate the walk-in traffic that Vliet Street businesses have been cultivating over the past several years.” “My customer base has been created by decades of referrals and my clients are located in the greater Milwaukee and Madison areas primarily, but frequently extends up the lakeshore into De Pere and Door County as well as other parts of Wisconsin and nationally, too. I’d like to have the space completed by the end of summer.”
FOUR CORNERS OF THE WORLD
5708 W Vliet St
Status: Moved down the block from 54th St.
Owner Clara Tracey: “Four Corners is moving in order to be closer to the retail section of Vliet Street. I love the idea of a row of shops that people can stop in on a Saturday morning after walking to Highlands Cafe or Valentine for coffee, or to Wy’east for pizza on a summer evening. The new space is beautiful, with south-facing windows, high ceilings and hardwood floors with lots of character. I’m looking forward to creating a modern space to showcase the fair trade goods sold at Four Corners, the only remaining fair trade store in Milwaukee. “ “Owning a retail store is difficult in any location, especially with the ebb and flow of traffic throughout the year. I am thrilled to be a part of the rejuvenation of Vliet Street. I’ve been with Four Corners for three years, and I’ve noticed a change in those short years. Monthly, I have customers stopping in the shop mentioning that they’ve noticed the increased activity on Vliet, or heard about the street from a friend. We’re quiet but vibrant!”
ART & SOUL GALLERY
5706 W Vliet St
Status: Consolidated operations.
Owner Sue Heeley: “Running an art gallery this big is challenging, both in terms of connecting with local artists to offer the wide selection of fine art, jewelry, gifts and wearable items – and keeping the space ready for yoga and other clients. The holiday season is great for us, but it’s difficult to continually promote the store plus handle all-volunteer events, such as ArtWalk and Holiday Happenings. I’m excited that Four Corners is moving in next door. We have similar customers – people who are looking for wonderful gifts made by people with loving hands, not the same old stuff you find at the mall.”
5601 W Vliet St
Status: Under Construction
Co-owner Ann Brock: We are getting closer and closer to being open. We are excited to have our oven in the building and to see the transition to finishes and fixtures. We don’t have an exact date yet and wouldn’t want to jinx ourselves. It won’t be too much longer and we’ll be firing up the oven, giving a big cheer, and turning out hot pizza pies for all of you who have patiently waited and encouraged us.
5526 W North
Status: Opening Soon.
Wauwatosa resident Brian Schneider purchased the building and Devon Dent is hoping to open Scene 1 – a lounge and restaurant later this spring. The menu will include small plate style American fare.
SAMARA GARDEN & HOME
5211 W North Ave
Status: Closed. Building for sale.
Co-owner (with Maribeth Celek) Stewart Dempsey: “We began eight years ago at the height of the real estate collapse and the downturn of the economy. We were steadily doing better until the last three years. The economy is not really better for most of our customers. Young people are not buying things – especially antiques – like their parents and grandparents did. They don’t want to own things, and since they are so connected, the things they really want to buy, they buy online, not in a store. It is not just the Heights that is experiencing the trend of small shops downsizing or going out of business. There is just no longer enough local support to sustain a business like ours.” “The other problem is attracting new customers that are outside of the neighborhood. Our experience has been that suburban Milwaukee for the most part, will avoid shopping within the city of Milwaukee if they can help it. There is a perception (driven by the media), that all of Milwaukee is unsafe. When potential customers hear of our address, they immediately have an image (a totally inaccurate one) of our location as being way too dicey to come to. This, combined with the fact that we sell things that are not necessities, and that more people bring things to us to sell than there are people to buy, means we don’t have a sustainable, profitable business.”
5513 W North Ave
Status: Commercial Kitchen Rental.
Owner Christine McRoberts: “Our leased space on 55th and North provides extra cooking space for McBob’s corned beef. In addition we lease the extra space to other cooks who need a licensed kitchen for their goods. For instance, Johnathan makes Mr. Dye’s Pies, Urban Caveman packages up perfectly portioned food for cross-fit exercisers, Jeffery makes homemade caramels, Jonute runs a food truck, and a number of smaller users make goods for farmers markets.” “Expansion is always tough. The first year with our leased space we had to fund through general funds. Sometimes you question the decision, but this year is better. I have always believed in North Ave and the opportunities it offers. August 1st will be McBob’s 30th Anniversary, and we will be celebrating on Saturday July 30 – details to come. We are working on changing the facade. It will be a dramatic change from what it is now.” ✿