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Common council members vote to transform old Sears building into boutique hotel

Posted at 5:52 PM, May 09, 2019

An old building on the city's northwest side will be transformed into a boutique hotel, which officials say will help jump start a struggling neighborhood.

"At one time, this neighborhood was a thriving neighborhood," Kalan Haywood Sr., president of the Haywood Group said. "It can be that again."

Haywood purchased the old Sears building near North Ave. and Fond Du Lac Ave. last year. The Ikon Hotel will have 80 rooms, a 24,000 square foot conference room and 100,000 square feet on the first floor as an incubator space for small local business.

At Tuesday's common council meeting, members voted 12-3 to award a $4 million loan to the developer.

"The city is putting up this $4 million to invest in the central city where it's much needed," Ald. Russell Stamper said. "It will look new. It will look fresh. It will look safe. It will look inviting."

It's a large sum of money that opposition says is not worth the risk.

"We do need to invest in neighborhoods but we need to do it smartly," Ald. Michael Murphy said. "Throwing money away isn't a smart decision."

Murphy says the developer did not provide sufficient evidence of how they would pay back the loan.

"We hold every other developer to the same standard," Murphy said. "I think we have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers before we make a decision that we base it on facts."

But the city development commissioner says every one of these deals has risk.

"The risk of doing nothing at all is much greater," Rocky Marcoux said. "We've said all along this is going to be a difficult project. It needed to be the right developer, the right mix of financing and we're proud that the city is leading with the financing and we're convinced we found the right developer. The folks you'll see working on this building are going to look like the people in this community. That means a lot, not only to the people who live here but to the rest of Milwaukee as we try to advance men and women of color in the development, construction trades and getting more people from the city actually employed and actually sharing in the success of what's happening downtown and in other parts of the city."

The location is less than five minutes from downtown. It's part of the allure of the hotel. It's nearly a straight shot to Fiserv Forum; the hub of the Democratic National Convention. The DNC was a main selling point by Stamper during Tuesday's common council meeting.

"That has no bearing on what I'm doing here," Stamper said. "What we're doing here is investing in the central city. It's two minutes from downtown right in the area that needs it most. That's what we're doing. The DNC is a product of opportunity."

The convention is just a mere 14 months away. In that time, Haywood is hoping to transform decades of disrepair into a vibrant part of the central city with the Ikon Hotel as the catalyst.

"It's a great project and when we come back here in 36 months, we'll see a whole different energy change," Haywood said. "We're not only trying to redevelop our property, we're trying to redevelop perception. We're trying to redevelop the idea of hope."

"The neighborhood is already on its way," Marcoux said. "A lot of development projects have already happened but without having this signature building, you're not going to be able to get the rest of the dominoes to fall. This sets the table for the next wave of development."

The next wave of development will impact the surrounding run-down closed storefronts across from the old Sears building. Businesses with broken windows, locked iron gates, graffiti and garbage filling its entryways adds to an already bad perception of the area, but this money won't just go to the hotel.

"We do have an investment of $500,000 to support surrounding areas so they can get business in the area and we can open up and get rid of some of these dilapidated buildings," Stamper said. "It's not just a hotel. The whole area is going to come up and have an opportunity for growth. We're working on these owners. They're mostly private owned. We need them to step up or we're going to hold them accountable for their buildings. Either demolish or remodel. That's it."

Haywood says he hopes to have the Ikon Hotel open in time for the DNC while the conference space and business incubator space will take a little more time. With the short time frame, he says residents can expect to see some changes happening within the next couple of weeks.