Housing units and more have popped up along the Milwaukee River in recent times, as the city has accommodated development. For decades, the community polluted, then ignored the festering water. However, in contemporary times, there have been multi-pronged efforts to rehabilitate the resource. In today’s installment of our series, Milwaukee River Revival, WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports on the growth of eateries and watering holes. Quite a few have boating docks.
Dozens of people stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Lakefront Brewery on a hot, Saturday afternoon. The customers are here for Lakefront’s signature feature, the brewery tour. Afterward, dozens stand in line for beer and sip their beverages on a massive deck overlooking the Milwaukee River. Billy Craig traveled here from Minnesota to visit relatives.
“It’s just refreshing, great view, right next to a great watering hole. When I get married I want to come back and take a picture up there,” Craig says.
Craig’s sister Dena calls the view breathtaking.
“I didn’t know it was this beautiful over here, now I want to go on a boat ride,” Craig says.
Like many of the brewery’s customers, the Craigs are from out of town. Owner Russ Klisch estimates three quarters of his business comes from outside Milwaukee.
“The brewery tour is the bigger draw, but the fact that you have the river is big. The river keeps them here a little bit longer,” Klisch says.
Klisch relocated the brewery to N. Commerce Street from the Riverwest neighborhood in 1998. His business now sits on the northern end of the River Walk. Klisch says he worked closely with the city to develop his part of the walkway and toiled tirelessly on the landscape. He incorporated “Cream City” brick, a light-colored brick made from clay found only in Milwaukee.
“We made these Cream City brick planters with little chains in between and put a Cream City brick bar out there and a couple of trees,” Klisch says.
Klisch says the city sprang for half the $200,000 cost of developing the property. While customers only trickled in at first, word spread. Klisch says he has now recouped his investment.
“It definitely increased the value of the land that much. There’s no doubt about that,” Klisch says.
Klisch says, during just the past year, his business has grown 20 percent. Another person benefiting from a river location is Tiffany Urban. She manages Sail Loft, a restaurant located on the south end of the River Walk, across from Summerfest. The place has a massive outdoor deck and bar, and every seat is full on summer nights. It also leases six boat slips. Urban says in nice weather, up to 60 percent of her business comes from boaters.
“We sell equipment to boats that need equipment. We have boating supplies from flares to life jackets to light bulbs to anything they need,” Urban says.
Sail Loft opened more than a year ago, after the former Rip Tide restaurant closed. So Urban says, the deck, dock and landscaping were already in place. While waterside amenities can flourish, there can be associated risks. For instance, people out for a good summer time and drinking too much.
“We pretty much maintain and don’t let people get to that point and if they come in off the docks that way, then we just refuse to serve them,” Urban says.
Urban says she pays $120,000 per year in liability insurance, more than double what she’d pay located away from the river’s edge. And, while business booms in summer, it plunges by half during cold weather. Cristian Vega manages Screaming Tuna, an upscale sushi restaurant located on the river near downtown Milwaukee. He says his customer base dropped 25 percent last winter, so he works on creative schemes for bringing people to the place, off-season. Those include renting rooms in the adjacent condo complex for private parties.
“We had a very, very large event for New Year’s. We teamed up with the next door property and we had a party of 450,” Vega says.
Vega says he sets aside money from his summer cash flow and puts it toward advertising in winter. He estimates 90 percent of his customers live in Milwaukee, so he’d like to develop relationships with hotels to bring more out-of-towners to the restaurant. Vega also dreams of the day Milwaukee extends the River Walk to Screaming Tuna. Right now, his place is located next to a vacant overgrown lot. Milwaukee Development Director Rocky Marcoux says the city plans to fill-in the gaps some day.
“The goal would be to have on both sides of the Milwaukee River a River Walk system that leads all the way to the harbor mouth. So we have a few missing teeth but our hope is that those are going to fill in, we are working on a couple of those pieces right now,” Marcoux says.
Marcoux predicts that with more people living along the river, demand will increase for amenities, including, during the winter months.