Celebrating its twentieth anniversary as Milwaukee’s urban rivers land trust this year, the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF) continues to pride itself on improving quality of life in the Milwaukee area through “conservation of natural areas and creation of public access to those natural areas.” Formed in 1994 by the Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, and River Revitalization Council, RRF started after the publication of the Milwaukee Riverway Plan in 1991. This plan contains recommendations for improving the environmental quality of the Milwaukee River Basin, focusing on greenspace, public access to the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers, and habitat restoration and economic investment in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Milwaukee Riverwalk is an example of one of the priority projects. In the early 1990s, city leaders anticipated that the Riverwalk would bolster downtown development and increase property values, especially in the downtown and Third Ward areas. As of January 2014, the Riverwalk plan is near completion with only one segment needing to be completed in the Third Ward. The plan’s success has enhanced RRF’s long-term conservation efforts.

Celebrating Nature in the City

Two of RRF’s leaders, Kimberly Gleffe and Aaron Zeleske, traveled different paths to a shared passion for environmental conservation. Gleffe acts as Executive Director, starting her career with the organization 13 years ago. “I’ve been in the non-profit sector my entire career and I have a psychology and sociology degree and a master’s in education, but when I applied for the [RRF] position, I didn’t have any environmental experience,” Gleffe explained. That changed quickly, as Gleffe, who regards conservation as part of her personal philosophy, led the way in coordinating projects with the Milwaukee River as a focal point.

RRF’s Aaron Zeleske, Director of the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition, also understood his interest in environmental conservation later in life. “I grew up in the country in Fond du Lac and there was a big woods and a little creek behind my house, so my brother and I would be out in the woods all summer long,” Zeleske reflected. “It took me a while to realize how much of an impact that had on me, until I started living in bigger cities and how much I missed that. And I’m very happy that I’ve found my niche here in a position where I can help the community.”

As far back as 2002, the Argosy Foundation provided support for RRF’s work, which ranged from conservation projects in the Village of Brown Deer to those in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Most recently, from 2012-2014, Argosy’s support helped RRF in their restoration of a 2.8 acre site on Riverboat Road—the former site of the Melanec’s Wheelhouse Mystery Dinner Theatre.

“The big goals are to increase access to the river and to improve natural habitats for wildlife.”

The Process of Restoration

In 2009, with the help of the Wisconsin DNR’s Stewardship Program, RRF purchased the Wheelhouse site for $1.4 million. Upon acquiring the property, RRF moved toward developing the site into a riverfront park, which provides additional green space in a densely populated area of the city, a habitat for endangered species, and access to the Beer Line Trail, which connects to the Oak Leaf Trail on the river’s east corridor. Specifically, the site will become the fourth riverfront park within a 2.5 mile loop of parks including Caesar’s Park, Riverside Park, and Gordon Park.

From 2010-2011, RRF demolished and removed the abandoned building from the property, installed a pollinator garden, and improved an existing boat launch. Argosy’s grant in 2012 supported the removal of invasive species, planting of native vegetation, erosion control, and bank stabilization at the site. However, RRF’s staff cannot complete this work on their own. “We have a very small staff— three full-time people and three part-time people—that’s it, so having a summer crew and a winter crew is critical to getting this work done,” Gleffe noted. City of Milwaukee summer programs like Earn & Learn, bolster RRF’s restoration and education efforts as urban youth work part-time for 7 weeks in the summer, learning about restoration and helping with conservation projects.

During the fall, winter, and spring seasons, RRF receives support from the UW-Milwaukee Service Learning Program. Gleffe noted that, “We’ve been getting 40-60 students who do 10 hours a semester for service learning through the conservation biology and geography classes.” Much of the work happening as part of the restoration is also dependent upon community volunteerism. “We do a lot of one-day corporate employee events with Miller-Coors, U.S. Bank, Westbury Bank, and other partners who send about a hundred employees for a day to cut down invasive trees, plant native trees, and fix trails,” Gleffe explained. This constant collaboration with other partners helps RRF approach lengthy, and seemingly daunting projects, with patience.

Future Plans

Through continued community collaboration, RRF plans to move forward with the Wheelhouse Park Project and others initiatives, like the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition. The coalition, started in 2010 as a work group of several organizations, drafted a master plan for the Milwaukee River Greenway—an area stretching from Silver Spring Drive in Glendale to North Avenue in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.

Encompassing 878 acres of primary environmental corridor and 6 miles of river, the Milwaukee River Greenway will be a site for RRF revitalization projects in the years to come. “The big goals are to increase access to the river and to improve natural habitats for wildlife,” Zeleske explained. One specific feature of the plan includes developing a logo and consistent signage that “create a unified identity” throughout the Greenway.

Argosy wishes RRF a happy 20th anniversary, and continued success in creating and preserving Milwaukee’s urban wilderness.

For more information, visit https://riverrevitalizationfoundation.org.