From Bill Sell

OffRamp: Beer Visions

Published in the Bay View Compass, August 2005

Beer Vision

After the Common Council voted last month to reject WisPark’s PabstCity proposal to demolish most of the Pabst Brewing complex, Mayor Barrett issued an angry statement condemning the “no” vote as a vote for the status quo.

Let me explain why the Mayor, whom I respect, is on the side of the status quo. What is more “status quo” than the Mayor meeting with developers while citizens’ ideas are ignored?

A major plank of PabstCity hype (repeated by the mayor) was that PabstCity was the “only” plan? Yet, The Business Journal reported, five days after the vote, three alternatives.

Why would that newspaper wait until after the vote to bring this information forward?

Opponents assembled a coalition of disparate interests to defeat WisPark’s ill-advised proposal. No surprise there. After all, Milwaukee was not founded by status quo thinkers.

Nineteenth-century Germans came to Milwaukee to escape the wars and oppression of Kaiser Wilhelm. They brought brewing skills, hard work, and thirst, and—humming “Ode To Joy”—built several world renowned breweries. Preserving these memories by salvaging the Pabst is the opportunity of our generation.

I find it ironic that the Kaiser style of 19th century political oppression is on the rise just when we almost demolished the memory of the Kaiser’s dissidents. Not only is there today another imperial war, but also a growing bondage of Americans to corporations, to minimum wage jobs, and a related despair about the future. Corporations threaten massive take-overs of our treasures: parks, museums, libraries, schools, roads, Medicare—all to be run for profit—the history of socialism in Milwaukee be damned.

I wager Milwaukeans believe we can do better. Beer made this city and the story of beer can shed light on how to revitalize the neighborhoods.

Pabst should not be merely another shopping mall; it could be a micro-city, the size of old Milwaukee which nurtured several breweries 150 years ago. Envision a hive of small businesses, not small jobs. Stores and entertainment will follow. Anchor the complex first with what will make people stay, affordable housing and business incubators. Slant the market so that people will desire to live there, integrating with but not gentrifying the Hillside neighborhood. The cinemaplex, the game arcade, and the House of Blues are welcome—as the cart, but not the horse. Tourists may come, but don’t count them yet; they are a fickle lot.

Empty Pabst buildings can be filled with small enterprises which can thrive in tight quarters because they are undercapitalized and owners are willing to put in 80-hour weeks until their businesses mature. Milwaukee’s vision is larger than jobs; the working vision is the worker’s own work. People will sweat if they are building their own futures.

“One business builds another” is a notion in the fabric of Milwaukee. It can be repeated, as we are doing in Bay View and on Vliet, Water, Brady, and Mitchell Streets.

So, why another mall?

With sweat, breweries thrived. Sweat built the old-world castle we know as the Pabst. Sweat and thirst is what made brewing famous for Milwaukee. Whatever the industry, we want to own what we do because we no longer have faith that corporations will take care of us. Let the Pabst Brewery proposals resound with the bells of economic independence; this is not China where suspicions of freedom are welcome.

Joe Megna, protesting the WisPark plan, said he spent $3 million to build Mimma’s restaurant and help revitalize Brady Street, without financial help from the city. One enterprising young man, who bought an interest in the Pabst Brewery National Historic site (before WisPark’s purchase), is now suing WisPark over control of his interest. If the Mayor is “against the status quo” why is he not talking to all the players?

The Pabst is the biggest opportunity that Milwaukee has had on its plate in a long time. A large-sized challenge offers a large-sized adventure. To a German with a beer in hand, nothing is impossible.

You can reach Bill Sell at the author’s eMailbox .

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