The stench alone could easily have driven attorney Jill Gilbert Welytok from the historic property she now owns at 34th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee.
Previously used as a walk-in medical clinic, the early 20th century building was on a corner where drug dealers and prostitutes were known to gather. But when Welytok first visited the property as a potential buyer, she saw its promise.
“I was with someone who didn’t even want to walk into the building because it smelled bad and it was hot,” she said. “But I went in. I thought it was a good, solid building that had been around forever, and there was just something I liked about it.”
Welytok took a risk moving her intellectual property practice, Absolute Technology Law Group LLC, from its rented space at the ornate Germania Building downtown to the fixer-upper property she now owns at 3316 W. Wisconsin Ave., but it’s a risk that’s paid off for her pocketbook and the neighborhood, she said.
Welytok first considered buying property a couple years ago when her lease at the Germania Building was set to expire. At the time, she was participating in the U.S. Small Business Association’s Emerging 200 Initiative class in Milwaukee, an in-depth business education course for inner-city businesses that demonstrate high growth potential.
Her instructor and classmates encouraged her to consider buying a property instead of continuing to rent, she said.
“I had no desire [to buy a building] at first. But they explained that, when you improve a leased property, it never becomes an asset – it never becomes a part of your balance sheet,” she said. “But when you buy a building, it’s an asset, you build equity and if the business ever needs credit, you can get loans against it. It’s just a really positive step for any business, law firms included.”
A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Welytok said she liked the idea of buying property in a less-desirable neighborhood and working to improve the area surrounding it, while running her firm more cost-effectively.
According to Bill Daub at the Milwaukee Assessor’s Office, the property was purchased in February 2010 for $115,000. Current city property records show the assessed value is now $238,000.
The property required a lot of work before it could be used as Welytok’s new office, she said. She declined to say how much she paid in improvements.
Welytok said she pays approximately 20 percent less each month for the mortgage compared to rent at the Germania Building. Though it’s not a major decrease in her monthly outlay, she conceded, she’s building equity and is confident it will appreciate.
But saving money on building costs could have been a loss if clients did not want to come to a less desirable area, Welytok realized. So she polled some of her best clients about the potential relocation. “Their response was a surprise,” she said. “They were mostly pleased with a better parking situation. They were also more concerned about service delivery than appearance.”
As for her staff, she said, they were “very open-minded,” Welytok said.
“They’re really committed, and they said they didn’t think they needed the status of being in a fancy building with a big lobby,” she said.
But it wasn’t until Welytok spoke with neighbors that she decided to make the leap.
The firm is across Wisconsin Avenue from Marquette University High School, and Welytok reached out to officials there at her Realtor’s suggestion.
“Candidly, we are in the city, so we do have ‘city issues’ at times,” said Kriss Schulz, the school’s vice-president of communications and planning. “But it’s the strength of the neighbors and community that have helped revitalize the area.”
And things are starting to change in the neighborhood. Just a few blocks away, on the corner of 27th and Wells streets, a “gut rehab” is transforming a three-story, 9,000-square-foot building constructed in 1916 into modern retail and office space.
Dubbed the SoHI Building, its developer, John Hennessy of the Hennessy Group, said he believes that “if you build it, they will come.” Hennessy said the building would be perfect for a new, avant garde law firm that wants ultramodern space in a historic building, but maybe can’t afford real estate downtown.
About a mile to the east of Welytok’s firm, the Pettibone Mansion is home to Boyle, Boyle & Boyle SC. Attorney Bridget Boyle-Saxton said the firm is hoping to attract new graduates from Marquette University Law School as renters at the property. The area “is changing in a very positive way,” she said.
“It’s a very unique area, with a wide range of businesses,” Boyle-Saxon said. “It’s great to be around the college students. And we’re so close to downtown and the highway. To watch the change has been a lot of fun and exciting.”
Welytok said she and her firm are there for the long haul.
“We’re part of the neighborhood now,” she said. “People really appreciate that we’re here.”
Schulz concurred, lauding Welytok’s role in helping revitalize the area.
“Jill’s a great neighbor. It’s amazing what she’s done with her building,” she said. “It’s been great for the neighborhood.”
June Moberly, of the area’s Avenues West Association, said it’s been nice to have a business such as Welytok’s choose to operate in the neighborhood.
“It just makes so much sense,” Moberly said. “The prices are reasonable, and there’s wonderful convenience here — we’re close to the courthouse and other attorneys’ offices downtown.”
Jane Pribek can be reached at email@example.com.