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City takes the thrift out of downtown

Ordinance disallows new resale shops

Aug. 16, 2007

Thrift stores and pawn shops can no longer move into the Downtown West Allis Business Improvement District, according to an ordinance approved by the Common Council on Aug. 7.

City officials said too much effort has gone into improving the look and viability of the district, which encompasses Greenfield Avenue from 70th to 76th streets and adjoining side streets, to allow such shops.

The council voted 8-1 in favor of the ordinance, with Michael J. Czaplewski in opposition.

John Stibel, Department of Development director, said the downtown in the past had several such businesses, but they tended to indicate an economic decline within the area. Those types of business no longer fit the character of the district, which has seen property values double in the last five years, he said.

"The downtown has gone to great lengths to improve its image," Stibel said. "I can certainly understand why merchants want to protect their investment and their property values."

The businesses will be able to operate out of other commercial areas within the city if they obtain a special-use permit. The ordinance does not apply to antique stores..

The council also approved prohibiting tattoo and body-piercing businesses in the downtown district.

Already a conflict

The ban on new resale shops will prohibit at least one interested entity from moving into the area. The Milwaukee Federation of Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Churches wants to move its headquarters to West Allis, specifically the Owl Imports building at 76th Street and Greenfield Avenue, said the Rev. John Ibisch, president and development director of the organization.

Steve Naimon, owner of Owl Imports, said he's looking to retire from operating the shop that sells a wide variety of collectibles, clocks and music boxes. The Milwaukee Federation of WELS Churches was willing to lease the building and make $60,000 to $80,000 in improvements.

"I'm going out of business no matter what goes on," Naimon said.

In addition to administrative offices and conference and classroom space in the basement, the WELS organization wants to use the 10,000-square-foot ground floor to sell new religious and Owl Imports merchandise, as well as resale items, to support its churches and mission work.

Ibisch suggested that the city make resale shops a special use within the district and consider them on a case-by-case basis. He said the Milwaukee Federation of WELS Churches was planning on making its shop upscale resale and would become a member of the BID.

However, several council members noted previous problems with resale shops, including door-to-door solicitations for donations, inadequate upkeep of storefronts and delivery trucks parked in front of businesses.

Unwanted vacancy?

Several residents spoke in favor of permitting the WELS organization and its resale component.

Dave Parbs, a resident of the 1500 block of South 79th Street, said he's watched the downtown businesses decline and now make a comeback, but he's afraid a larger building like Owl Imports won't have an easy time finding a new tenant.

"You deny their permit and the building could sit vacant for years," he said.

Ibisch said the new ordinance likely ends the chances of the church offices moving into the area because the resale component is necessary for its success.

"Our churches are being asked to do as much as they can financially and more," he said.

Stefanie Scott can be reached at or (262) 446-6618.

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