When Dan Sidner bought an old two-story grocery store at West Fairview Avenue and North 68th Street, he was thinking ... location, location, location.
It seemed an unlikely one to some — a long-in-the-tooth structure in a tiny block of small local businesses, across the street from a car wash — but there it stood, almost at the very foot of the 68th-70th streets exit from Interstate 94.
If he built it, Sidner thought, they could come — and they did. Maxie's Southern Comfort quickly became one of the most popular casual restaurants in metro Milwaukee.
Sidner's worry now is that if the Wisconsin Department of Transportation decides to do away with that freeway exit, as it says it might, his business will suffer, perhaps drastically.
Looking ahead to a project to rebuild I-94 from 70th to North 25th streets, the DOT is taking public comment before beginning a two-year planning process. Actual construction wouldn't begin until 2019.
A public information hearing will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Burbank Elementary School, 6035 W. Adler St., according to the DOT website.
Among the potential changes, along with widening all or part of the stretch, is to do away with the exit that serves 68th Street.
And although many who use those ramps could be affected, or at least inconvenienced, it would be hard to argue that anyone would be more adversely affected than Sidner.
"Yes, I'm real concerned," Sidner said. "When I bought this building in 2006, I had to make a very significant investment in turning it into a restaurant. The conversion cost four times what we paid for the property.
"It was always predicated on access to the freeway. I would say, arguably, about 50 percent of our customers come off the freeway."
Told that ramps are too closely spaced
Sidner said DOT officials told him the reason for the possible closing of the ramps was that the exits along Wauwatosa's southern border are too close together.
"What they said is that you don't want to have more than one per mile," Sidner said.
Sidner is also worried about Blue's Egg, his second area restaurant venture at North 76th Street and Blue Mound Road.
"It's a big problem for Blue's," Sidner said, "because a lot of people coming from the east get off here to get there.
"But for Maxie's, it's the whole shooting match."
The problem, even for very popular restaurants, is that there are so many of them. You can have great food and atmosphere, but being easy to find and get to can make the difference.
"In particular, in the summertime, we have become that place where east meets west, where people from as far as Delafield or Oconomowoc can meet people from downtown, or even from north and south — because we also aren't that far from Hwy. 45.
"If you look at a map, we're right in the middle of the metro area."
A long-term investment at risk
Will having to learn a new route and go an extra half-mile on city streets from the east, from the Hawley Road exit, or a full mile from the west, from the 84th Street exit, turn people off?
Sidner doesn't know, but he doesn't like the idea of having to find out.
"This is just the beginning of a very long process," he said. The DOT "will do the study over the next two years. They wouldn't begin construction until 2019.
"That's some time to think about it, but I can tell you my investment won't be paid back by then or for some time after.
"If I were a betting man, I would say this one was safe. But I don't know that. I'm going to be sending them letters every six months letting them know how I feel. And if they come back after two years of study and say, 'Yeah, this is what we're going to do' — I would pursue every avenue available to me to challenge that."
Sidner was already concerned, before he heard about the possibilty of his exit being closed, because of the Zoo Interchange Project, which could be a lengthy damper on traffic from the west from next year through its scheduled completion in 2018.
"Any way you slice it, we're going to be affected," Sidner said. "Our hope is that we'll be in business here for a very long time, and that ultimately all that would be an improvement.
"But I would be very concerned to lose this exit."