Marquette Forges Partnership to Transform a Community

By Joe DiGiovanni, Senior Communication Specialist, Marquette University

Located in the historic Avenues West neighborhood of Milwaukee, Marquette University sits within only a few square miles of some of the city’s other iconic brands and organizations that draw millions of visitors annually. While the businesses differ in the products and services they deliver, they all possess a deep love for Milwaukee and the West Side communities they call home — a home that needed to return to its former luster.

Marquette, uniquely called by its Catholic, Jesuit mission to serve its urban neighborhood, was positioned to help lead the renaissance. In 2014, President Michael R. Lovell convened senior leadership from more than 30 organizations to develop a community partnership, called the Near West Side Partners. The nonprofit agency includes five anchors located in the neighborhood — Marquette, Harley-Davidson, Potawatomi Business Development Corp., Aurora Health Care and MillerCoors.

The University continues to lead the way in the partnership. Nearly 25 departments at Marquette are committed to the effort, including trustees, working team leadership, faculty researchers, and student interns and volunteers. 

In addition, a project administered by a Marquette committee, Promoting Assets and Reducing Crime (PARC), works directly with the initiative to address safety issues, neighborhood identity and branding, housing, and commercial corridor development.

“To take our shared neighborhood to the next level, we must better leverage these assets and ensure that residents, employees, students and visitors feel safe,” Lovell said. “PARC gives us the tools to do that.”

The efforts are paying off. Property sales increased by 16 percent from 2014 to 2015 and seven formerly vacant homes were sold to owner-occupants. A total of 23 percent of the commercial corridor properties increased in value while 71 percent had no change.

There has been a development of a new park, a new community garden, the closure of two nuisance properties, and the opening of three restaurants and a gas station.

“We’re proud that Marquette University calls Milwaukee’s Near West Side its home and proud of its long-standing commitment to making the Near West Side the best place to live, work and play in Milwaukee,” said Keith Stanley, executive director of Near West Side Partners. “Marquette’s leadership and vision were essential to the development of this unprecedented partnership.”

Some of Milwaukee’s most beautiful and historic buildings and churches are found in the area, which boasts affordable housing and a diverse population of residents. PARC is a key focus of Near West Side Partners. A, $1.5 million initiative to revitalize and sustain the area as a thriving business and residential corridor, PARC promotes economic development, improved housing, unified neighborhood identity and branding, and greater safety for residents and businesses.

PARC provided for a fully-funded Community Prosecution Unit — led by an assistant district attorney and a full-time community prosecution coordinator — that works daily with the Milwaukee Police Department, key government agency and community-based organizations to reduce crime, prevent domestic violence and improve the quality of life for the area’s residents.

Data and research are central to making these efforts successful. PARC works with Marquette’s Center for Peacemaking to lead efforts gathering and analyzing key public health and safety data to guide planning and evaluation of the key initiatives.

Marquette University President Michael R. Lovell addresses a capacity crowd at a Near West Side Partners community forum. (Photo by marquette University)

Marquette University President Michael R. Lovell addresses a capacity crowd at a Near West Side Partners community forum. (Photo by marquette University)

Others are noticing the work provided by Marquette in helping the area. In July, The Washington Center, an independent, nonprofit organization that provides students opportunities to work and learn in Washington, D.C., selected Marquette as one of only five universities in the nation to receive its 2016 Higher Education Civic Engagement Award. 

Marquette’s work with Near West Side Partners was a key factor in the University receiving the award.

“As a Catholic and Jesuit Institution, an important aspect of our mission is to make a significant impact in our community,” Lovell said. “This award signifies that we are making strides toward fulfilling that mission.”

Some of the other initiatives by Near West Side Partners include:

  • A competition, modeled after the reality TV show Shark Tank for $10,000 in cash and $25,000 worth of in-kind services. Proposals from eight finalists ranged from a food truck to a company that wants to build custom furniture from salvaged materials from foreclosed Milwaukee homes.
  • A three-year campaign to raise $5 million to help finance development projects, which has already secured $2 million.
  • An effort to bring a grocery store to the community. Most of the neighborhoods in the area have been designated “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the lack of grocery stores.
  • A brainstorming session, called a “charrette,” where residents and key players from the area and the city met to decide the scale and types of development – housing or retail – they would support on underused land.
  • Participation in National Night Out, an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make the neighborhoods safer.
  • Working with the city to target problematic parcels of land to increase property value and build the tax base.