Our Stories

Making a City Yours: The Story of Milwaukee’s ACRE Program

In 2004, Mark Eppli noticed a problem. The Marquette University professor became acutely aware of the critically low rates of people of color working in commercial real estate development in Milwaukee. Not one to walk away from a problem, he set off to find a solution with the help of Milwaukee’s community leaders, politicians and local organizations. What he built became the Associates in Commercial Real Estate, or ACRE, a program that has become a mainstay in the city. LISC’s Tope Folarin shares the story of how ACRE got started, the impact it has had in the city, and the inspiring graduates who help keep it moving forward.

There are six of us assembled around a table. We’re sitting in an anonymous conference room in an anonymous building in the middle of downtown Milwaukee. We have gathered for a session of the Associates in Commercial Real Estate practicum course, which has been meeting in this space for the past two months. In response to a question by Francisco Bravo, a program officer at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) office in Milwaukee, a woman rises and plugs a projector into her laptop. An image glimmers to life on the wall—a slide from a PowerPoint presentation. It’s an overhead view of a group of buildings. The woman points to a spot on the wall, near the middle. As she speaks she is implicitly asking us to perform a double act of imagination—first to envision that the small rectangles on the wall before us are three-dimensional buildings (they are, in a way, which is to say that these rectangles represent real three-dimensional buildings, but they actually stand in a very different part of Milwaukee, a few miles from where we sit) and second, to reshape one of these rectangles—the one she repeatedly touches, near the center of the wall—into a remodeled unit that houses a music shop on its ground floor and six condominiums above.

For the uninitiated—for those, like me, who have never really engaged in an exercise like this before—this double act is somewhat difficult. For a moment all I can see are a few austere squares and rectangles. Yet the more she talks, the easier it is to see what she wants us to see. Brick by brick the possibility of what could be displaces the black and white grid before us.

***

In 2004, another group of students was engaged in the act of imagining new realities—this time in room 504 of David Straz Hall at Marquette University. They were there to participate in an experiment that had been conceived by a college professor named Mark Eppli just a few months before. Earlier that year, a colleague emailed him after a commercial real estate development conference that Eppli had convened in Milwaukee and inquired why there weren’t any people of color present. Eppli thought back to the conference; he remembered who had been there, and who wasn’t, and suddenly he wondered the same thing.

In the following days, in his spare time, he began to investigate the rates of participation by people of color in commercial real estate development. He was shocked and disappointed by the figures he unearthed. One statistic, in particular, unnerved him: according to the Wall Street Journal, in 2003 less than 1% of the 100,000 professionals who worked in commercial real estate development were black. Over the next few weeks Eppli formulated potential policy responses to this issue, he considered strategies he could employ to convince local and national leaders to act, and then, finally, he decided that he had to do something about it.

“At Marquette and many schools we talk about the problems that minorities face, but we decided to do something about it. And we did.”
— Mark Eppli, founder of ACRE

He began to design a program that would address this issue in Milwaukee. He had no idea if there was any interest in such a program, or how he would secure funding. So he called a few of his friends and associates—in the academy, city government, business, the philanthropy world—and pitched his idea.

He received several encouraging responses, so he drafted a proposal and sent it to local business groups and philanthropies. The Helen Bader Foundation, a local philanthropic organization, provided seed funding. Eppli worked diligently to create a curriculum, to recruit instructors and mentors, and then he began to spread the word. He placed a few advertisements in local newspapers and asked friends and colleagues if they knew any ideal candidates. He also approached local groups that specifically serve people of color in Milwaukee, such as the Urban League and the United Community Center, and asked them to advertise the program—now called Associates in Commercial Real Estate, or ACRE, based on a suggestion from a colleague—in their networks. Applications poured in. After sifting through dozens of them (“we had three or four applications for each slot,” Eppli says) Eppli and a team of professors from Marquette selected the first class of students for the inaugural year of the ACRE program.

Eppli had shaped the ACRE curriculum from the courses he had been teaching at Marquette for three years, but with an important change—four years of material would be compressed to a nine-month span. And sessions would take place during the evening hours, after many of the students had completed a full day of work. Eppli had no template to follow, and his new students did not know what to expect of the course. They were treading into the unknown, but they were doing so together.

“I thought it was really important that we walk the talk,” says Eppli. “At Marquette and many schools we talk about the problems that minorities face, but we decided to do something about it. And we did.”

ACRE Alumni Donsia Strong Hill, Deshea Agee and Carla Cross. All three graduated with ACRE's first cohort.
ACRE Alumni Donsia Strong Hill, Deshea Agee and Carla Cross. All three graduated with ACRE's first cohort.

The inaugural cohort was made up of intelligent, accomplished Milwaukeeans. Some of them—like Carla Cross, a longtime developer and accountant, and Donsia Strong Hill, an attorney who had served as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing—had interacted before, in other contexts. Some, like Willie Smith, who was finding his way as a commercial real estate investor, had worked in pockets of isolation. And a few, like James Phelps, who was then employed as painter for the Milwaukee School District, had worked in different contexts entirely, aware of but distanced from the professional accomplishments of their classmates.

“It was a little intimidating,” Phelps says. “These people work at the state level or the federal level or the city level of government, and I’m the painter.”

Eppli was joined by five other instructors who taught on a rolling basis. The students quickly took to the material, and each other: “Within the course of the first couple classes I went from being intimidated by being in class with all those people to being happy, and starting to form relationships with them and figuring out how I could leverage that to my benefit,” says Phelps.

***

The first ACRE graduation was held in April 2005 in a large tent on the campus of Marquette University. Twenty graduates sat in their Sunday finest as Mark Eppli and a few instructors offered some words about the occasion. And then one by one each graduate walked across the stage and accepted a certificate of achievement from Eppli. The ACRE program had, in ways both large and small, changed the lives of everyone involved. The new graduates had learned much more than they had imagined possible, and the instructors, including Eppli, came away deeply impressed with the intelligence and drive of their former students. Now each of them had to answer an important question: What next?

They were treading into the unknown, but they were doing so together.

For Eppli the answer was clear: he and his team had already recruited a new class of ACRE students. For the ACRE graduates, however, the response varied. A few of them would be serving as interns in commercial real estate development firms in order to burnish the skills they had gained in the classroom. Others garnered internships at companies that were connected to the commercial real estate development world. And a few others took up positions in fields unrelated to commercial real estate development, but with a renewed sense of possibility about their own careers, and the various opportunities that were available in Milwaukee.

Three months later the cycle began afresh. A new crop of students attended their first ACRE session at Marquette University. As with many of the students in the first cohort, some of them learned about ACRE from newspapers or from friends who had heard about the program. Yet a few of them also heard directly from recent ACRE graduates who could speak personally about their experiences as former ACRE students.

Successive ACRE classes functioned essentially the same as the first. Sessions were held once a week and the course extended from September through May. Each cohort featured around 20 students, though that number was higher in some years, and lower in others, depending on the application pool. Eppli and his team adjusted the curriculum in response to student commentary and their own observations about the skills their students would need in order to have successful careers in commercial real estate development. And year by year, many of Milwaukee’s finest—some of whom had never even considered working in or being affiliated with commercial real estate—graduated from a program that was gaining a reputation for excellence in Milwaukee.

***

Back in that anonymous room in an anonymous building in downtown Milwaukee someone else is now addressing the room. He is showing us a PowerPoint slide that seems almost identical to the slide that his classmate showed us—an overhead view of a group of buildings—except he is pointing to another spot on the slide, north and west of hers. He, too, is asking us to imagine a building that isn’t there, but could be. Now he approaches his laptop and the slide changes. We see a grid with dozens of numbers. An Excel spreadsheet. He calmly explains each figure on the spreadsheet, some of them denoting his current assets, others showing how much he intends to borrow, and from where, and at the very bottom is a large number, the amount of money it will take to transform a PowerPoint slide into something real. Around me his classmates nod and take notes. At the end Francisco Bravo, the LISC program officer and an ACRE graduate himself, compliments his presentation, and then he suggests that one of the numbers might be wrong, or slightly off. Bravo also explains that one of the funding sources listed on the spreadsheet is no longer available. The man before us crinkles his brow. He rubs his forehead. We hear the subtle clicks of his laptop keyboard as he deletes and inputs new figures, then deletes again. The spreadsheet is collapsing, and we can see him racing ahead as each domino falls, trying his best to forestall the inevitable.

***

Near the end of 2008, the U.S. stock market crashed largely as a result of the collapse of the housing market. Milwaukee was hit especially hard by the Great Recession; indeed, many ACRE graduates who were working in commercial real estate development found themselves in increasingly tenuous positions as the recession wore on. Investors became skittish about parting with their money, and development projects throughout Milwaukee lost momentum in the months following the crisis. ACRE welcomed a new class of students in 2009, but at the beginning of 2010 Eppli decided that he had no choice but to place the program on hiatus. “My thinking was, if we continue the program at this point in time, we’re selling false hope,” Eppli tells me. “I think false hope is one of the worst things you can do to anyone.”

Of course, ACRE now had a persuasive and influential group of advocates—over 140 graduates who were rising to positions of prominence in Milwaukee. They were living examples of why a program like ACRE was so necessary; they were succeeding in ways that might not have been possible before the founding of the program. Too, they were now connected to one another as participants in a powerful network whose members tracked one another’s progress and provided critical information about how to navigate Milwaukee’s political and economic spaces. Yet their very presence in these spaces—spaces in which they were still far outnumbered—served as proof to them that ACRE still had an important role to play in shaping the future of Milwaukee.

***

In 2013, Mark Eppli was working at his desk at Marquette University when he received a call from an old acquaintance. Leo Ries, executive director of the Milwaukee office of LISC, had an idea for him. “He called me and said, ‘Eppli—I think it’s time to restart the ACRE program. It’s far too important to our development communities, to our Main Street developers—we have to start this back up,’” Eppli says.

ACRE had been on hiatus for four years by then, and though Eppli had spent a fair bit of time pondering if he would restart it, he did not know how to resolve two issues. Eppli no longer had the time to run the administrative side of ACRE because his academic responsibilities had increased in the intervening years. Eppli also required assistance with fundraising for ACRE. Ries offered an elegant solution—LISC Milwaukee would step in to help administer the program, and would assist with fundraising as well. Eppli was pleased, and agreed with the arrangement immediately. “It was really LISC Milwaukee that got this going again,” he says.

Ries and Eppli decided that ACRE would welcome a new class the following fall, in about a year. They had much work to do. Eppli contacted the group of instructors who had assisted him with running ACRE before the hiatus. Many of them agreed to rejoin the effort. Eppli also worked with Ries and Robert Lemke—a longtime ACRE instructor—to revise the ACRE curriculum, with a particular focus on incorporating topics they believed would be relevant in a post-2008 crisis world. They also expanded the scope of the curriculum by including units on property management and construction, in order to provide students a broader understanding of how the real estate business functions. Meanwhile, Ries began seeking partnerships to assist with the administration of ACRE. A few weeks later, LISC Milwaukee announced that it would be collaborating with Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to administer ACRE.

Next came the question of recruitment. LISC and its partner institutions broadcast the news about ACRE as widely as they could, and as word spread they received a surge of applications from students and professionals who had heard about ACRE from their families and friends, from those who had worked with ACRE graduates, and those who had been mentored by ACRE graduates.

In late 2014, in a room not unlike the room in which the first ACRE session was held ten years before, or the room in which an ACRE practicum session would be held four years later, a new class of students listened as Eppli delivered the opening lecture that marked the relaunch of the Associates in Commercial Real Estate program.

A commercial real estate researcher named Kyle Mack sat listening that day as Eppli and others spoke. He had recently graduated from Marquette and already owned a portfolio of buildings in Milwaukee. Yet he was eager to become a developer, and he realized that he needed to make some contacts in the commercial real estate development world and acquire more knowledge about how the industry works in order to achieve his ambition. “I thought it would be so cool to get into development, to really change your city. To have a hand in how things grow,” he says. For Mack and his fellow students, ACRE had returned to the scene at precisely the right time.

Also among the budding developers in that class and subsequent classes were students who had no intention of pursuing a career in commercial real estate development. Students like Ray Hill, who initially heard about ACRE from her boss while she was working at an African-American bank in Milwaukee. She then joined the 2015-2016 ACRE cohort in order to learn as much as she could about commercial real estate development with the intention of applying the knowledge she gained to her preferred career path as a property manager. “I basically said in my interview that I’m very interested to see what happens at the forefront, before the properties are brick and mortar, before we’re leasing,” she tells me. “Even today, in what I do as a property manager, it all ties together.”

Hill’s presence in the program was an acknowledgement by ACRE’s administrators of the impact that ACRE graduates were having in a variety of arenas. Upon graduation, Mack, Hill, and their classmates would be joining a network of powerful and well-connected alums including Milele Coggs, Jose Perez, and Khalif Rainey, who were prominent politicians and members of the Milwaukee Common Council; Deshea Agee, Sakuri Fears, Vincent Lyles, and Keith Stanley, widely known and respected leaders in the nonprofit sector; and Carla Cross, Melissa Goins, and Kevin Newell, all of whom had successfully developed properties across Milwaukee that were celebrated for their ambition and scope. The network also included business leaders like James Phelps, who owned—with his two brothers, Jalin and Clifton, who were also ACRE graduates—JCP Construction, one of the only minority-owned construction companies in Wisconsin.

Accordingly, the ACRE curriculum now included a component that could not exist during those early years—ACRE graduates routinely visited the classroom in order to reflect about their experiences as ACRE students, to discuss their failures and successes in the years following their completion of the course, and even to provide instruction on various topics.

They also informed ACRE students about the range of possibilities—both within and beyond the borders of commercial real estate development—that existed for ACRE graduates.

Steve DeVougas, a 2015 ACRE graduate who now works at Hayward Group, one of the few black-owned real estate investment companies in Wisconsin, put it this way: ACRE gives you a platform to talk to like-minded people about how to change the city.” Several ACRE graduates I spoke with told me that they would not have their current jobs if it weren’t for ACRE. They also told me that they had gained something even more important from their time with ACRE: membership in a community of supporters and believers.

***

The presentations are over and now we are sitting and talking among ourselves. The man sitting next to me is telling me more about his presentation, and then he points across the room, to the man who gave the final presentation just a few minutes before. He tells me they are working on a plan to develop another building. “And then we’ll work on another one after that,” he says. There is no hesitation in his voice. I ask him what ACRE means to him. He pauses. Then he smiles. “Well, ACRE is giving us a chance to make this city ours.” It’s such a simple statement, and yet I can’t stop thinking about it, even after I say goodbye to the class and take my leave, even while I’m walking around Milwaukee that evening. Even now.

“ACRE is giving us a chance to make this city ours.”

What does it mean to make a city yours? Especially when—like many of the people I met in Milwaukee—you were born and raised in a particular city, when that city is the only city you have ever really known? His statement, like a coin, has another side: to say that you finally have a chance to make a city yours also means that you have never really felt the city was yours.  Despite the fact that you went to school there and experienced your first successes and disappointments there, you have always felt as if something or someone else is in control, of your fate, your ambitions, your life.

What does it mean to make a city yours? I can’t help but think that this question has countless answers, and maybe that’s the entire point. To make a city yours means that you have an opportunity to imprint some aspect of your will on its development, to look around and see something that once existed only in your dreams staring right back at you.

***

A remarkable number of ACRE graduates have remained in Milwaukee and work daily to make Milwaukee a more accommodating place for their families and communities. “There’s always been a brain drain amongst people of color in Milwaukee,” says Alexander Walker, a developer who also works as a plan examiner in the Department of Neighborhood Services in Milwaukee, and a 2016 ACRE graduate. “I made a conscious choice not to do that because every person helps in breaking down the divisions that exist in this city.”

Because so many ACRE graduates work in such close proximity to one another, they often discuss the future, and how their ambitions must include those who have not benefitted from the opportunity to participate in the program. Oftentimes these conversations are concerned with the fate of ACRE—what it will represent for future graduates, and if (and how) ACRE should evolve to account for the economic, political, and demographic changes that are occurring in Milwaukee, many of them initiated and facilitated by ACRE graduates themselves.

These topics are pressing, especially now, because ACRE just completed its first year without its founding director. Mark Eppli left his perch at Marquette University last summer to take up a new position at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Donsia Strong Hill, a graduate of the inaugural ACRE class who now leads Milwaukee LISC, serves as a co-director of ACRE along with Andy Hunt, who is also the director of the Center for Real Estate at Marquette; Carolyn Esswein, an urban planning professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Bob Lemke, a longtime ACRE instructor and an architecture professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. They have planned and executed a few changes to ACRE in the wake of Eppli’s departure. Chief among them is the establishment of a fund, named in Eppli’s honor, which will provide money for recent ACRE graduates to develop properties in Milwaukee. They also worked closely with Eppli to create a practicum course that connects recent graduates to city-owned properties, and provides them with the in-depth knowledge to successfully develop these properties. These initiatives represent one possibility for a future ACRE—a program that empowers students to step out of the classroom and directly into a development opportunity.

However ACRE evolves in the future, it has already achieved a great deal—for its graduates, its instructors, and those of us who are rooting for Milwaukee from afar. Perhaps most importantly, ACRE has helped to transform the image of Milwaukee that has become ingrained in our minds—a segregated city, a city without a significant population of middle-class residents of color—into something different, something new: a diverse and open city in which anyone can succeed. A city that all of its residents will inhabit fully. A city that no longer glimmers beyond anyone’s reach.