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Milwaukee's Choice Neighborhood Initiative Catalyzes Economic Development With Business Loan Program

Reprinted from the HUD Choice Neighborhoods Newsletter, March 2023, Issue 120 - 03/15/2023

When the City of Milwaukee was awarded its FY14/15 $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant, they knew continued economic development in the Westlawn neighborhood would be critical. Together, the City, the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM), and its partners initiated a comprehensive set of redevelopment strategies focused on increasing employment opportunities, creating retail and amenities, and catalyzing broader transformation in the neighborhood, to include the adjacent commercial corridor. The grantee’s Business Loan Program, a joint initiative with their long-standing partner, the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, played a significant role in their successes. To date, the Business Loan Program has helped eight businesses either launch, expand or relocate into the neighborhood, created/retained 58 jobs, and spurred exponential growth and largescale economic development throughout the community.

Pictured here is Mr. Thomas Green, Jr., who grew up in the Westlawn public housing development, utilized a Choice Neighborhood loan to have a custom mobile kitchen built for his business, “Mr. Greens.”

A Tool for Economic Development

The impetus for focusing on economic development arose in response to feedback from resident surveys, which clearly identified a desire for local shopping opportunities, restaurants, a grocery store, pharmacy, and other businesses within the neighborhood. The Milwaukee Team was also committed to increase job opportunities for residents. Like many Choice Neighborhoods, the Westlawn neighborhood lacked many neighborhood amenities and retail and had limited economic development opportunities. The Milwaukee team used HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Technical Consulting funds to hire a consultant to identify market potential and develop recommendations. The team realized they needed an incentive to draw businesses to the target area.

To create this incentive, the Milwaukee team turned to a trusted partner, Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) and their Business Loan Program. HACM already had an established relationship with WWBIC, a leading Statewide economic development Community Development Financial Institution. The financial organization had successfully assisted HACM residents with financial training and asset building for years. In addition to this work, WWBIC was well-known across the state for operating a Business Loan Program with a proven track record of success.

Since inception in 1987, WWBIC has served 72,343 individuals and loaned nearly $100M to small business owners. WWBIC’s technical and capital support has created or retained 21,047 jobs with 8,961 businesses started, strengthened, or expanded. In addition, WWBIC’s mission was consistent with that of the grantee – to empower women/men and minorities by providing long-term assistance to help them reach financial well-being and security. WWBIC consciously focuses their efforts on engaging clients who otherwise don’t have access to traditional banking services. The Business Loan Program itself dovetailed well with the rest of the grantee’s CCI Plan, which among other elements, included a façade improvement grant program also available to businesses. WWBIC’s well-established Business Loan Program presented a natural opportunity to achieve the team’s economic development goals.

Attendees learn about the Choice Neighborhood loan fund and other business resources during the July 29, 2021 “Live & Revive” Choice Neighborhood Business Summit.

The Business Loan Program and Its Successes

Once the program was established in the Westlawn Choice neighborhood, the grantee, HACM, and WWBIC were intentional and persistent in their marketing efforts. Outreach efforts included intensive door-to-door marketing, large-scale mailings, social media outreach, and numerous other official announcements. In addition, HACM and WWBIC strategically hosted several well-attended and successful business summits to promote both the program and the neighborhood at large. WWBIC also marketed the target area to its own contacts and recruitment pool to attract businesses. Marketing efforts were so successful that one of the businesses in WWBIC’s regular loan program (a disabled veteran-owned manufacturer for the aerospace industry) decided to establish their operations in the Choice neighborhood.

Under Milwaukee’s Choice Neighborhoods Business Loan Program, $1 million in Choice Neighborhoods CCI funds was set aside for a revolving loan fund, which was matched with $500,000 from WWBIC. This two-thirds/one-third split enabled the partnership to offer its loans at favorable rates, which further incentivized businesses to set up shop in the neighborhood. Applicants followed WWBIC’s standard loan application process and submitted a business plan that was reviewed by a committee. Once awarded, loan recipients received ongoing financial and business management technical assistance throughout the term of the loan. Throughout this process, WWBIC brought a critical, experienced eye which enabled them to scope out promising new businesses that understand success and could bring long-term opportunity to the community. At the same time, WWBIC looked beyond those businesses that were traditionally considered “non-bankable” to offer credit when appropriate. For clients that may not be ready for a loan, WWBIC offers a whole suite of services and classes to help develop their skills and expertise.

Renee Lindner, Small Business Consultant for the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp (WWBIC), promotes the Choice Neighborhood loan fund and other resources at the May 14, 2019, Choice Neighborhood Business Summit.

Since the Business Loan Program’s inception, the Milwaukee team has awarded eight loans, ranging from $10,000 to $250,000, to new and existing businesses within the target area. All loans were awarded to minority or disadvantaged businesses. In total, these businesses have created or retained 58 jobs within the community. In direct alignment with Choice Neighborhoods objectives, the Business Loan Program directly benefited one former resident, who was awarded a loan for his popular and highly successful food truck. The program offered such a unique opportunity that another business used a loan to purchase equipment that helped them pivot their business plan to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Business Loan Program has successfully supported other key businesses in the neighborhood as well, including a day care center, a home healthcare provider, and one of Milwaukee’s oldest supportive services organizations serving the African American community.

Aligning and Building on Investments

The Business Loan Program functions in concert with the grantee’s other CCI programs and all CCI partners have collaborated closely to transform the physical profile of the neighborhood. For example, a well-loved local business, House of Corned Beef, benefitted from a CNI-related grant to purchase new signage. The owner has also purchased and torn down another dilapidated building and utilized the CCI commercial façade improvement program in constructing a brand-new building that will soon be home to a pharmacy. Brew City Distribution, a fine craft beer distributor, was another recipient of a CCI façade improvement program grant and a business loan. HACM’s community development partner, Havenwoods Neighborhood Partnership, played a key role in recruiting Brew City Distribution to the community, and the CCI resources have been helping to realize its business goals. Seeing market potential among industrial workers in the neighborhood, the brewery plans to establish an outdoor beer garden and dog park, envisioning the Westlawn Choice neighborhood as a unique destination experience for its customers.

The change spurred by the Loan Program is helping to establish a solid foundation of new economic growth and further opportunities. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services recently relocated 200 employees from downtown Milwaukee into a newly rehabilitated factory building, which had previously been fraught with safety concerns. In addition, Sentry Foods, a group of locally owned and operated grocery stores dedicated to giving back to the community, will soon open a full-scale grocery store in the neighborhood, bringing with it local fresh food and high-quality meat options, as well as a host of job opportunities to the community.


Milwaukee’s Choice Neighborhoods Business Loan program is a prime example of a well thought out and carefully managed CCI activity. In turning to an experienced partner, the Milwaukee team was able to develop a tool to achieve their objectives of attracting businesses that residents desired, creating jobs, and catalyzing large-scale economic development. This success has resulted in tremendous opportunity for both current and future Westlawn Choice Neighborhood residents. The Milwaukee team also credits part of their success to the investment and time the Choice Neighborhoods program provides communities. In the words of Willie L. Hines, Jr., HACM Secretary-Executive Director, “An important part of the success of this program has been the multi-year commitment by HUD. The neighborhood faced historic disinvestment over decades, and that dynamic wasn’t going to change overnight. It took years to develop relationships, prospect for neighborhood business partners, and build trust for local buy-in. We appreciate that the Choice Neighborhood program has provided both the resources and time needed to meaningfully change the trajectory of the neighborhood”.

This newsletter is prepared by technical assistance providers and intended as a resource for Choice Neighborhood grantees. The posting of this content is not intended as an endorsement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) nor does it necessarily reflect the views and policies of HUD or the U.S. Government.


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