Five restaurants get grant funds

Alterra's request raises question for one alderwoman

Oct. 19, 2011

Five food businesses will receive financial assistance to startup or expand in Wauwatosa. However, a city leader has questioned whether one of the grant recipients may be too successful to warrant help.

The Wauwatosa Economic Development Corp. met last week to divvy up nearly $262,000 in 2011 Community Development Block Grant funds to businesses that promise to create jobs. Highlands Café, Le Reve Patisserie, Rocket Baby Bakery, Alterra Coffee Roasters and the owners of Cranky Al's will each get 45 percent of the dollars they requested.

"It's great that all this is happening in Tosa but there's a $325,000 gap," Paulette Enders, city economic development director said.

Mayor Jill Didier, a WEDC member, said she could not deem one business more worthy than the other. Instead, they will each get a share of the pot.

"I wouldn't want to see any one project not be funded," she said. "You don't have to pay this back so we will give you what we can proportionately."

The applicants could seek money at a low interest rate from the Wauwatosa Revolving Loan Fund, a different body with its own approval process. Businesses will have to get creative looking at a variety of funding sources in this economy, Didier said.

The only request denied came from Best Cleaner & Laundry, 7215 Center St. The owner wanted $5,900 for new signage, but Didier didn't feel comfortable providing more money when payments were delinquent on a prior loan from the city.

Alterra Coffee Roasters asked for $220,000 to help acquire the property at 68th and Wells streets, where a café that would offer 15 full-time jobs would replace the medical clinic building that has been vacant for more than a decade.

Lincoln Fowler, one of the business owners, said a developer who had planned to put townhomes on the site had overpaid for the property and in turn wanted to get back what he paid. In total, he estimated the project would cost $1.4 million.

On Tuesday, Alderwoman Linda Nikcevich said she liked the general plan but was opposed to the financing assistance. Granting the money to Alterra would be rewarding a bad business decision.

She was the lone member of the Common Council to vote against an amendment to the business plan that called for eight townhomes on the site.

City Attorney Alan Kesner said the topic of WEDC funding was not relevant to the decision, which asked whether an Alterra Café was a good fit for the site.

The council also allowed Alterra to encroach into the public right of way for outdoor seating and bicycle parking.

During the WEDC meeting, Nikcevich suggested Alterra look at spaces elsewhere in Tosa, where acquisition may cost less.

In addition, she didn't understand why a 20-year-old business that was touting success at more than a dozen locations throughout the Milwaukee area needed financial assistance. The money would be better put to use assisting "smaller, developing businesses," she said.

With two members of the group absent and a quickly called meeting, Nikcevich said she should have asked to hold off on voting on how to distribute the funds. She preferred to leave Alterra out and fill the other four requests at 75 percent of their requests, but was outvoted 2 to 1.

"I can't disagree more," Didier said. "Alterra taking over the corner of 68th and North is a huge investment in the community. This is exactly what the CDBG money is meant for."

The plans

Highlands Café will use its funds for a build-out into adjoining space that would create 16 to 18 part- and full-time jobs. Started in 2007, owner Sandy Murphy likens the existing space to "a walk-in closet." The business already received approval from the city to expand and acquired its construction permits last week.

Le Reve Patisserie & Café operates in a 100-year-old former bank building. The French eatery that opened in 2008 is experiencing growing pains. At first, the business plan called for a pastry shop with coffee, owner Andrew Schneider said.

"It's turned into a full-on restaurant," he said.

Doing four times the volume of business originally anticipated has resulted in wear to the original flooring and stairs, a need to take down some of the thick vault walls for space and a need to improve the heating and ventilation systems. The restaurant plans to expand its pastry offerings and catering menu and would add two full-time jobs.

Susie Brkich, owner of Cranky Al's in East Tosa, has the opportunity to acquire the building at 6817 W. North Ave. that formerly housed Aqua Terra pet shop. The site could be developed into a full-service, casual dining spot that creates four jobs. Brkich said "a restaurant people want" is interested in the space but everything hangs on the acquisition.

Across the street at 6822 W. North Ave., East Tosa resident Geoff Trenholme is converting a building into Rocket Baby Bakery. His grant funds will go to buy equipment to prepare artisan breads, pastries, coffee and sandwiches.

"This is going to be a huge transformation of this building," he said.

A retail bakery and café will lead to five jobs, he said.


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