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Retrospective: Top Tosa Business Stories in 2012

During a year when politics often took our attention away from the business going on right around us, retail development in Wauwatosa went from next-to-nowhere to no-end-in-sight growth.

2012 may be remembered as the year retail business development in Wauwatosa started out in the doghouse and came out king of the hill.

One year ago, the economic development gurus of Tosa were dismayed with the scope, the type and the timetables of new and proposed retail projects on the table and on the horizon.

There were much higher hopes for bigger and bolder visions, such as UWM's Innovation Park technology research and development center – which just bore its first fruit Tuesday night.

But now, the retail joy is overflowing, it is our city's shining beacon again, and that is thanks mostly to one magic name:

Nordstrom.

A year ago, a mere Nordstrom Rack clearance store was a bauble that had been dangled in front of Wauwatosa shoppers for a year already, but even that still seemed a distant hope.

HSA Commercial Development had in early 2011 proposed a phased redevelopment of the blighted Burleigh Triangle, the long-abandoned warehouse site north of its namesake street and east of Hwy. 45 – a grim portal to the city from the suburban northwest.

Civic leaders grumbled that Phase One of HSA's plan, the Mayfair Collection – a $45 million project, mind you – was less than what we might have hoped for. There was too much retail, not enough office, corporate and other mixed-use space. The names Nordstrom Rack and Dick's Sporting Goods had been bandied about, but where were the promises? 

HSA had made it clear that any redevelopment of the Triangle would require public support through a tax-incremental financing district. The firm had already needed one six-month extension of its preliminary plan approval while it negotiated with a cautious city. Before long, it would need a second extension.

Longtime vision finally becomes a reality

In early September, the logjam began to break when it was announced that Nordstrom Rack and Dick's had signed leases with HSA. Less than two months later, the city and HSA came to agreement on the terms of a TIF.

Right on the heels of HSA's lease announcement, Meijer Inc. announced a proposal for a supercenter store – retail goods and groceries – right across Burleigh Street on the former Stroh Die Casting properties, idle since 2009.

Again, some in the city were less than thrilled, this time over the prospect of another big-box store. But a little research showed that Meijer stores are quite well-liked in the suburban communities where they do business. There are only about 200 Meijer stores in half a dozen Midwest states – Walmart has thousands and are everywhere – and the company always buys its properties, never leasing, and has closed only one or two stores in its long history.

The proposal was accepted. With that, the Burleigh Triangle doldrums lifted, and the retail sails of Wauwatosa filled on a gentle breeze.

Dream of shoes comes true

On Nov. 29, Nordstrom announced it would build , its first in Wisconsin. The sun broke through the clouds, a singing wind billowed those sails, and dolphins frolicked at Wauwatosa's bow.

That's hyperbole, but not much. The business community, civic leaders and prospective customers were giddy with rejoicing. Nordstrom had been the most-requested store at Mayfair and every other Southeast Wisconsin mall and retail center for a decade.

A Nordstrom Rack and a full Nordstrom department store? It seemed clear that Wauwatosa had won the battle to remain, and now to gain an insurmountable superiority, as the retail magnet of the region.

During our drawn-out retail hand-wringing of 2012, the Town of Brookfield had, through a special dispensation of the Legislature and the governor, offered a huge public assist to get a vaunted Von Mauer department store into a redevelopment project to be known as The Corners.

It looked a little, at the time, as though Wauwatosa might be fading as the focal point of metro commerce.

The Corners project, though, is currently stalled over concerns that other tenants besides Von Mauer have not lined up to fill the proposed space, making the $35 million-plus Town of Brookfield TIF a mighty risk.

By contrast, HSA will get by on about $7.5 million in Wauwatosa bond-supported financing; Meijer asked for nothing; Nordstrom and Mayfair have asked for nothing. They just want to be in Wauwatosa and are willing to pay for the privilege.

Wauwatosa won big in 2012, although the fruits of victory will take a few years to ripen. But Wauwatosa Patch has heard through the keyhole that other developers are lining up for any available space here, based on the magic of the Nordstrom name.

A parting – and rejoining – of ways on North Ave.

In a microcosm of that larger drama, January 2012 also brought wailing and gnashing of teeth to some folks on North Avenue when the owner of the former Blockbuster Video property announced he'd signed a 15-year lease with O'Reilly Auto Parts to occupy the building.

It was not what visionaries of the North Avenue Plan wanted. It was not bold or dynamic, ground-breaking or game-changing. But for others, it was more than enough; a longterm tenant and not a vacant property waiting for a pipe dream. There were petitions and counter-petitions, accusations and cries of foul.

But the lease was solid, and it was inescapable. And in the end, after O'Reilly dressed up the property, opened a nice store and started doing friendly business, everybody pretty much accepted and welcomed it and moved on.

The most important outcome, in retrospect, would seem to be not whether an auto parts store had supplanted some dreamscape-of-hipness redevelopment – but rather that no one got hurt in the scuffle.

The East Tosa Alliance did not dissolve in factional infighting. The North Avenue Plan did not evaporate in the heat. Any community recriminations either never developed or disappeared, as everybody in East Tosa started buying oil filters and windshield wiper blades at O'Reilly's and moved forward to the next opportunities.

Now we're talking business

Which came quickly. Rocket Baby Bakery, the first new business to be developed through the auspices of the North Avenue Plan, opened in March to considerable fanfare, and has since become a treasure of The Avenue.

Then, in July, the big reward for perseverance was granted. The Mojofuco Restaurant Group, owners of the very kind of hip and funky destinations everybody had envisioned, revealed plans for its second BelAir Cantina at the corner of North 68th Street on North.

It is the first time Mojofuco has strayed into the suburbs, having kept to Milwaukee's coolest neighborhoods on the East Side, in Riverwest, in Bay View and most recently, with its first BelAir, on Water Street.

It is also the first time in its 20-year history that Mojofuco (Fuel Cafe, Comet Cafe, Hi-Hat Lounge, Palomino, Balzac, etc.) has replicated a restaurant concept. It seemed to observers that East Tosa had, indeed, been confirmed as the new hip hotspot in metro Milwaukee – a recognition granted to no other suburb. 

Could it really be true? Not long after BelAir Cantina on North settled its business, the owner of the Red Dot on Milwaukee's East Side bought Shepherd's Sports Bar, another large property that includes a small Maytag laundromat adjoining.

The new owner said his new restaurant concept would be a bit different than – but at the same time very much like – the BelAir Cantina.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. 

To add icing to the cake, the organizers of the popular Tour of America's Dairyland criterium bicycle races announced that the last stage of the 11-day race series would move in 2013 from Madison's Capitol Square to Wauwatosa's North Avenue in East Tosa.

Lights, camera... action

What else? Well, one of the most-watched stories of 2012 was the sudden demise and dramatic resurgence of a 1930s-era neighborhood movie house.

The owner of the Rosebud Cinema in late February announced that he was closing it and the Times Cinema nearby – in about a week, due to foreclosure. But Anchor Bank, which held the notes, said "Never fear," and promised to reopen the theaters immediately under a receiver.

That was wishful thinking. The foreclosure proceedings led to a sheriff's sale of the property, and Anchor ended up being outbid for the properties by Lee Barczak, the principal of a finance company who also owns the long-shuttered Avalon Theater in Bayview.

Barczak promised to reopen both theaters as soon as possible, but possible proved to be late summer for the Rosebud and just now for the Times.

Nevertheless, the Rosebud, with a dress-up and a new coat of paint, made its star-quality comeback and is showing first-run movies on North Avenue again.

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