Changed Landscape

The ACRE program is helping developers of color transform Milwaukee’s real-estate industry — and its leadership landscape.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

When he applied to become part of the second cohort of Marquette’s already popular Associates in Commercial Real Estate program in 2006, Kevin Newell had strong credentials but was quite a bit younger than the typical applicant.

Kevin Newell

Noting that the 26-week course was designed primarily for working adults — and that Newell hoped to enroll while still an undergraduate — Dr. Mark Eppli remembers, “I actually pushed back against admitting him because he was a full-time student at UW–Whitewater.” Back then, just one of five applicants got accepted, and even small things could disqualify an applicant for the program, which meets weekly and includes courses in property management, construction management and real estate development techniques. But others championed the applicant, and Eppli, then professor of finance and Bell Chair in Real Estate in the College of Business Administration, agreed to take a chance.

The program’s founders, including Eppli, decided the university should take a chance on identifying and fostering promising men and women of color in Milwaukee to become players in the local development scene.

“We made an exception, and the dude has hit it out of the park,” Eppli says. Newell finished ACRE at the top of his class then worked four years in increasingly bigger roles for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. Now, 13 years after his ACRE training, the still-young Newell is helping to reshape Milwaukee’s urban real estate landscape through his own company, Royal Capital Group. Most visibly among the firm’s $100
million in developments so far, Royal was handpicked to develop the 112-unit luxury apartment and mixed-use development as part of the Milwaukee Bucks Arena District, outcompeting developers local and national. Notable about the announcement was a lack of headlines or surprise about a major downtown development going to an African American man born and raised in Milwaukee. Even a decade ago, that piece of the news surely would have garnered more attention simply because, even that recently, it almost never happened.

“Without the ACRE program, Royal Capital does not exist,” Newell says. “I was really attracted to the opportunity to do a deep dive into the teachings of the commercial real estate world from experienced peers, industry professionals and seasoned leaders in academia.”

The theme that landed Newell in the program — taking a chance — aptly sums up ACRE’s overall approach. Started in 2004 with funding from the Helen Bader Foundation, the program’s founders, including Eppli, decided the university should take a chance on identifying and fostering promising men and women of color in Milwaukee to become players in the local development scene. They did so because both personal experience and industry research told them that the region had microscopically small numbers of minority representation in commercial real estate, a field whose practitioners build generational wealth for themselves and their families but also shape the look, feel and possibilities of their communities.

That investment in human capital has encouraged other gatekeepers in the industry and related civic circles to take a chance on the program’s graduates,
 who have taken thousands of chances on developments. Those efforts, in turn, have remade big swaths of the central city and helped fuel many graduates into positions of leadership. ACRE graduates include prominent Milwaukeeans and form a burgeoning network in town. The pipeline works the other way, too. When Newell hired Terrell Walter at Royal, he urged him to enroll in ACRE, which he did, graduating in 2015. He’s now development manager with the company, in charge of a multimillion-dollar portfolio.

“We now see more developers of color coming before us with development projects that will help shape and mold Milwaukee’s future,” says a recent letter from three current Milwaukee Common Council members: Milele Coggs, Khalif Rainey and José Pérez. Another thing they have in common: Each is an ACRE program graduate. “Our experiences within the ACRE program have equipped us well as policy makers, in uencing the real estate developments we now see changing the Milwaukee skyline,” they wrote in the joint statement.

ACRE is now coordinated by LISC Milwaukee, which partners with Marquette, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and UW–Milwaukee.

Eppli, who accepted a faculty position at UW–Madison and is departing Marquette this summer, leaves not just the legacy of starting ACRE but also an enduring role.

“A strong ACRE program is a strong Milwaukee, and a real win not just for the life-changing experiences that these graduates receive, but also for our broader community,”

In March, LISC launched a new real estate fund called the Dr. Mark Eppli Catalytic Venture Fund, which it hopes to grow to $200,000 and will be available exclusively to ACRE grads for startup grants to get projects going, with an expectation they’ll pay the funds back once projects reach maturity. Eppli says ACRE students have always brought a discipline and dedication that he admires.

“They’re there to learn,” he says. “The level of engagement is extraordinary. That’s what makes it fun to teach.”

Andy Hunt, Bus Ad ’08, Grad ’13, director of Marquette’s Center for Real Estate, says that the department remains committed to the ACRE program after Eppli departs, and that Eppli’s replacement will oversee Marquette’s involvement in the program just as he did.

“A strong ACRE program is a strong Milwaukee, and a real win not just for
 the life-changing experiences that these graduates receive, but also for our broader community,” Hunt says.

ACRE ACHIEVERS: 5 MORE GRADUATES MAKING THEIR MARK IN MILWAUKEE

Melissa Goins, Comm ’03, Grad ’12, took an unusual route to her current job as founder and resident of Maures Development Group LLC. She was a sergeant in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections before joining the ACRE program, which propelled her into development and spurred her rapid rise into the ranks of Milwaukee’s up-and-comers. Maures has done $70 million in apartment developments, including three major projects not far from Goins’ childhood home at 24th and Center: Teutonia Gardens, Franklin Square and Century City. “The biggest gift beyond curriculum is that real estate is based on who you know, and ACRE creates a bridge and a platform for people without opportunities to be exposed to the real estate world,” Goins told the Marquette Tribune in 2014. “ACRE is not a magic bullet. … The responsibility is in the hands of the participants to nurture those connections created by the program.”

As executive director of LISC Milwaukee, a community development nonprofit that’s part of the 32-city-strong Local Initiatives Support Corp., Donsia Strong Hill guides partners in nationally tested development strategies to Milwaukee’s central- city neighborhoods. “Across the national LISC network, ACRE is seen as a promising model for advancing equitable economic development and building wealth,” she says. But her connection to the program doesn’t stop there. She graduated from the inaugural ACRE class of 2005. LISC now coordinates the ACRE program in partnership with Marquette and others. “ACRE graduates build their own wealth and in uence, and become mentors and investors to the next generation of minority developers in Milwaukee,” she says.

Deshea Agee, Bus Ad ’99 , spent nine years as an economic development specialist for the city of Milwaukee before assuming his current role as executive director of Historic King Drive Business Improvement District 8
 in 2016. Where did ACRE fit into his rise? “I can point to ACRE as the single most important set of events that propelled my career,” he says. “Professionally, ACRE put me in a position to help more than 300 property and business owners access over $3 million to improve properties
in Milwaukee. Ultimately, ACRE guided me to a career where I wake up every
day enjoying what I do.” And he avidly connects with up-and-comers from the program. “I am positioned well to help ACRE graduates put deals together. This is important because a goal of ACRE is to change the narrative in Milwaukee.”

Vincent Lyles’ path to his current job as president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee led through ACRE, which he completed in its inaugural year of 2005 and calls “a game-changer for me and many others.” He was working in the public finance group at Robert W. Baird at the time, a job he eventually left to be president of M&I Community Development Corp. before accepting his current job in 2012. He also serves on Marquette’s Board of Trustees. “I think more diverse and talented individuals have gained the confidence and skills to network within the real estate industry, and both groups have put their combined resources to good use,” he says about ACRE. “Good housing is fundamental to our existence, so the more people we have working on solutions, the better off we’re going to be as a community.”

Keith Stanley parlayed his ACRE training into roles in city government and neighborhood development, ultimately landing him in his role as executive director of the Near West Side Partners/ Business Improvement District 10, a high-pro le partnership of neighborhood constituents and five anchor institutions: Aurora Health Care, Harley-Davidson, Marquette University, MillerCoors and Potawatomi Business Development Corp. “Many of our political and economic systems in this country still seek to avoid competition, speci cally diverse competition, resorting to the ‘good ole boy’ system,” he says. “ACRE was and continues to be a voice against this mindset.”

In addition to the rigorous training ACRE provides to develop the skills and tools needed to succeed in high-stakes development work, he appreciates
how the program connects students to influential industry insiders. Says Stanley, Milwaukee BizTimes’ 2017 Nonprofit Executive of the Year, “I think I’m probably most proud of the relationships I have.”

From the 2018 issue of Marquette Biz, the annual magazine of the College of Business Administration at Marquette University. Read the entire issue.