We did it!
Right now, I’m sitting at the main tiki bar on Bradford Beach, surrounded by friendly people listening to some lazy-sounding music over a margarita. I can’t help but gaze at our beautiful Lake Michigan and note the hundreds people playing volleyball. Others are working hard to get ready for the National Junior Beach Volleyball Tournament happening this weekend – right here in Milwaukee.
As I often have done over the past six years, I take a moment to appreciate the four years of blood, sweat and tears put in by regular community members BEFORE philanthropists and private businesses could have the confidence to make donations and investments that would bring to life the visions of so many people who saw Bradford Beach as the gem that it now is.
You might think Bradford Beach has always been as awesome as it is today, or you might have personally witnessed how Bradford Beach transformed from a neglected and desolate public space ten years ago to one of the coolest places to spend summer days four years later. Top that off with the fact that the other weekend, Bradford Beach hosted a AVP Pro-Beach Volleyball tournament – that’s right, the best pro-beach volleyball players in the world were right here in Milwaukee.
Each year, someone reaches out to me from across the world – like college students from the Country of Denmark who want to know how we utilize public spaces in Milwaukee or folks up in Door County who want to improve their community beach – to ask how we did it.
I take my role seriously as a kind of “keeper of the story.”
So, here it is . . .
While Friends of Bradford Beach wasn’t the first to put the pressure on, or the driving force behind the generous donations and private investments that started pouring in, or the planner or sponsor of all the entertainment and athletic events, Friends of Bradford Beach brought voice to the disparate grumblings and hopes being expressed by many.
In 2004, after reminiscing with Jeff Sherman from OnMilwaukee.com over coffee at Alterra, I went home and sent an email to a bunch of people I knew, and the immediate and enthusiastic response told me I was on to something. Our group of about 20 suburban professionals then connected with The Park People and founded Friends of Bradford Beach and quickly decided that our mission was to find a way to bring families back down to Bradford Beach.
We shared our vision with Milwaukee County Parks Department, and then did our best to assure Preserve Our Parks that our mission was completely in alignment with theirs. Melanie Houston from The Park People and Sue Black, Director of the Parks Department, provided invaluable guidance and education on navigating the political process that was an inevitable part of the process of bringing our mission to life.
We partnered with Future Milwaukee students to host an event where Sheriff David Clark proclaimed his support of our efforts. Many children donated their works of art to our silent auction, and my daughter Rachel Price’s painting titled “Love Beach” ended up being purchased and hanging in Sheriff Clark’s office.
Jim Donnelly, a passionate designer, donated his own time to help us create a model of the Water Garden, a special area we wanted to create at Bradford Beach. So now we had an idea, and we had the interest and support of some critical people in town. Now, it was time to go to the people and secure the public demand for what we wanted to do.
Jim Donnelly led me to Todd Gawronski, who I would quickly find out was the true agitator and driving force behind the amazing transformation of Bradford Beach. Todd’s vision was to have Bradford Beach become a genuinely shared public space respected and enjoyed by people from near and far specifically engaged in healthy activities. His secret weapon would be beach volleyball, special events and good food and beverages. Todd loved our mission and offered to do anything to help. For the next four years, Todd would personally put up volleyball courts in the spring, take them down in the fall, plan and find sponsors for volleyball tournaments, launch beach volleyball leagues.
During those same four years, Friends of Bradford Beach would personally engage thousands of community members, sharing our Water Garden model, asking people to sign petitions, attract media attention and go through the grueling Lakefront Development Advisory Commission process to get the approval to raise the $800,000 on our own to create our Water Garden.
At the same time, there were so many other forces working that would cause everything to just come together in a way that felt like overnight.
There was an environmental grant and the involvement of MMSD and I believe UW Milwaukee that led to the creation of retaining ponds to prevent storm water runoff from running over the beach, leaving potentially-dangerous bacteria.
There was a committee of Downtown Rotary that spent a weekend cleaning up the bath house (main structure) so Hi Hat Restaurant Group could start offering food and beverages.
During this four years, Sue Black, then the Director of Milwaukee County Parks, who understood that we couldn’t bring back the beach without public-private partnerships, worked to secure $500,000 from Miller Coors to help achieve Blue Wave World Class Beach Status, donations from Chris Abele for rentable jet skis. It was private money that brought back the lifeguards.
There were calls every week from people who wanted to get involved.
Then on opening day in the spring of 2008, Todd and I looked around with our mouths wide open as we saw thousands of people on the beach. It was one of the most amazing and fulfilling sites I’ve ever witnessed. I remember saying, “Todd, I don’t think we have to build the Water Garden. What do you want Friends of Bradford Beach to do?” He said, make sure we’re family friendly and get families with kids down here.
From 2008 to 2012, Friends of Bradford Beach would enlist the help of hundreds of volunteers, service organizations and private businesses to put on 17 Family Day events.
UPS donated thousands over the years toward youth athletics.
In about 2012, Bradford Beach attracted the attention of Surg Restaurant Group, which went on to invest hundreds of thousands in the infrastructure needed to provide excellent food and beverage service.
Bradford Beach Cabana, owned and operated by Jeff Ferchoff, brought class down to Bradford Beach with his beautiful lounge chairs and cabanas.
Today, Bradford Beach is recognized nationally as a great beach and as one of the nicest beach volleyball beaches in the country. Just a couple weeks ago, Bradford Beach was recognized by the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Planning Association as a Great Place in Wisconsin, and the role local groups, partnerships and planners play in creating communities of lasting value.
This is a beautiful sentiment offered by Milwaukee City Planner, Robert Harris:
“Bradford Beach is a natural gathering place for the entire community and is universally embraced by the community. It is considered an asset and source of pride not just by one group or one neighborhood but by everyone. It was created by forward thinking planning and maintained by all facets of the community – local governments, private organizations, and above all residents and volunteers like the Friends of Bradford Beach. It is Milwaukee’s melting pot.”