Community is in the driver’s seat when it comes to catalytic collaboration

ThriveOn King could be just another headquarters for the Greater Milwaukee Foundation or a location for the Medical College of Wisconsin’s community engagement programs.  

For developer Royal Capital, the building could be just another real estate deal.  

But the $100 million development at 2153 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is turning into much more thanks to collaboration with and leadership from partners like Tom Johnston and Sheila Smith.  

Johnston and Smith are residents of Halyard Park and Harambee, respectively, two of the three neighborhoods surrounding ThriveOn King, and have been among the hundreds engaged over the past three years in determining the building’s layout and programming. Their involvement is “the heartbeat” of the ThriveOn Collaboration, the partnership between the Foundation, Royal Capital and MCW, according to Darlene Russell, the Foundation’s director of community engagement.  

“We are centering the voice of community in this work, recognizing that relationship is important,” Russell said. “We didn’t want to move into the neighborhood and say this is what we want. Our values are service, integrity and inclusiveness, and we have embodied those as we’ve been on this journey.”  

ThriveOn Collaboration’s opportunity to be a model for change in addressing interrelated health, economic, social and racial inequities is what led the Foundation to incorporate it as one of its five campaign priorities.  

Through one-on-one discussions and nearly a dozen visioning sessions and community gatherings, residents have had a hand in shaping everything from the design of the first floor to the programming that will bring the former Gimbels-Schuster’s Department Store building to life once the redevelopment is complete.  

Johnston attended the first visioning session in 2019 with his wife and young daughter. He has lived in Halyard Park since 2018 and loves its history and character. Like his neighbors, Johnston said, “We want to see the neighborhood advance, but we don’t want to see displacement.”  

Smith has lived in Harambee for most of her life and fondly recalls shopping at the Gimbels-Schuster’s store building as a child when it was one of several anchors on the thriving MLK Drive. She is excited to see the building transform into a neighborhood hub that will harmonize with complementary ongoing development in the area.  

First-floor plans reflect residents’ desires to incorporate programs and services lacking in the neighborhood or complement ones already in place. Programs and services also address health and social equity. ThriveOn King will include Malaika Early Learning Center, a 5-star child care center, nonclinical healthcare partners including Versiti, several local food vendors and a community gathering space. A demonstration kitchen will be available for health and wellness programming. A business center and youth makerspace will support area entrepreneurs and youth. Community-inspired artwork will reflect Bronzeville’s rich arts and cultural history.  

Throughout the planning process, both Johnston and Smith said the partners have listened carefully to residents’ concerns and incorporated their ideas.  

“We wouldn’t have made any design decision where we were in direct conflict with the community,” said Terrell Walter, Royal Capital’s executive vice president. This level of community engagement is new for Royal Capital and the Foundation. And there was a lot of back-and-forth and compromise, said Russell.  

“It’s all about relationships and moving at the speed of trust,” Russell said.  

Without such community input and buy-in, Walter said, ThriveOn King “would have significantly missed the mark with truly activating such a key piece of real estate in the city of Milwaukee and, more importantly, Bronzeville.”  

Those involved in ThriveOn King say it can serve as a model for other community developments.  

“Sometimes just having a big table that welcomes everybody no matter who they are or where they come from can just help things move forward,” Johnston said. “We need more of that.” 

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