Despite challenges, King Drive looks to have a bright future

August 13, 2020

Deshea Agee, Executive Director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District (BID) #8.

While many businesses continue to struggle due to the coronavirus pandemic, Deshea Agee, Executive Director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District (BID) #8, is using his unique skillsets to help ensure that businesses in his district not only survive the pandemic, but thrive.

Agee, who has headed the King Drive BID for more than four years, is optimistic about area businesses’ survival and he’s hoping to expand the district’s boundaries to help more of King Drive. Currently, BID District #8 extends south to McKinley Avenue and north to Locust Street. On August 17, 2020, Agee will go before the City of Milwaukee Planning Commission to request an expansion of the Historic King BID, extending it north of Locust Street, to Capitol Drive. The proposed boundaries would also expand westward on McKinley Avenue, to Sixth Street, and North Avenue to 8th Street.

“I am hopeful that Historic King BID District #8 can have the best Martin Luther King Drive, but we can’t just include part of it. We want ALL of King Drive included,” said Agee.

Started in 1992, the mission of the Historic King Drive BID is to improve the district by fostering a culture that enjoys a trendy and authentic retail experience while attracting businesses that embrace the commitment to hard work and strong character. Over the past 15 years, BID 8 has exceeded that mission—realizing more than $400 million of new development.

“The growth that we’re experiencing is phenomenal. It’s also the result of an extraordinary collaborative effort that includes residents, property and business owners, and individuals who believe in the vision for King Drive. We’re working together to cultivate this thriving community,” said Agee.

Among those property owners who have accessed the King Drive BID’s services is Terrance McClain. McClain, who grew up in the area, owns residential and commercial properties along King Drive. He credits Agee for helping negotiate a lease with Milwaukee County’s Office of African American Affairs.

“With Deshea’s help, we were able to facilitate the lease with Milwaukee County. Fostering a relationship with the BID has helped grow my footprint as a commercial and residential property owner. They also helped me with signage and referred me to grant resources. More of us need to utilize those services to help ensure we are developing and growing our businesses appropriately,” said McClain.

Business Improvement Districts (BID) are strong partners in efforts to develop robust commercial, residential, and industrial areas that create jobs and a higher quality of life in Milwaukee. The City’s 31 BIDs are funded and operated by businesses, property owners and other community members located within each district’s defined boundaries.

One of the more unique places on King Drive is Gee’s Clippers, a men’s barbershop with a basketball motif.

In addition to major, new redevelopment efforts, many locally owned and operated businesses, restaurants and services continue to add to the area’s vibrancy. Pete’s Fruit Market, Gee’s Clippers, Rise & Grind Café, America’s Black Holocaust Museum and Crown Hardware help make the neighborhood a destination for entertainment, services, and a variety of retail shops.

Dasha Kelly Hamilton and her husband, Kima, are owners of a trendy new business called The Retreat—a venue for meetings, training, events, and podcast studio. They credit Agee with helping them navigate their start up.

“The Historic King BID served as counsel to us as we worked through identifying and hiring contractors. They were an invaluable resource and advocate as we developed our business. It was helpful to have professionals in our corner. Much of their assistance occurred on the front end,” said Hamilton.

Agee’s career experience has played a huge role in King Drive’s success. In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Marquette University, Agee’s first job out of college was in sales at WMCS 1290 radio station. He later pursued a career in real estate after completing Marquette’s extensive ACRE training, and interned with Pabst Farms Development, a 1500-acre master plan community. Agee remained in that position for a year learning the real estate industry leasing, tax increment financing, infrastructure development and selling homes and lots. He was offered a job with the City of Milwaukee as an economic development specialist, where he served as the Bronzeville Project Manager for seven years. These days Agee has amassed experience in community development, including nearly nine years with Milwaukee’s Department of City Development and assisting with Milwaukee’s commercial revitalization programs.

“My experience in radio and marketing have given me a unique vantage point to help businesses succeed. I can review potential entrepreneurs’ business plans and offer them advice. I’m also able to provide marketing insight in terms of creating a roadmap to assist them once their businesses open. I draw from my knowledge of social media, advertising, and marketing to help entrepreneurs understand the metrics they need to become familiar with on a weekly and daily basis. At the City level I could not discuss these things, but at the BID level, I can provide these value-added services. I am also able to help property and business owners find middle ground in lease negotiations, so it becomes a winwin for everyone,” said Agee.

Agee continues to work to attract businesses into the area, easing and eliminating some of the red tape associated with leasing, financing, and startups. Entrepreneurs like Dwight Jackson, owner of Pepperpot Catering knows the challenges of navigating the hurdles of securing financing

“I was about to walk away from moving into the Historic King BID until Deshea stepped in to help. He cut through the red tape in terms of my financing. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes and wasn’t getting any response. The City gave me the building but securing a loan to renovate the space became a frustrating process. Deshea helped jumpstart the process and got things moving,” said Jackson.

Jackson is now on the road to renovating his new space on King Drive and Clark Street, with plans to open in 2021.

While COVID-19 has not left businesses unscathed, Agee and Diana Wilkinson, the Business and Outreach Coordinator hired two years ago to assist him, continue to offer hope and help to residents and businesses. During the racial unrest prompted by the murder of George Floyd, the BID facilitated and assisted with neighborhood clean ups and, through donations from the MMAC, provided grants to help repair broken windows and doors, replace some of business owners’ inventory and help businesses rebound.

“With support from LISC Milwaukee, we’re providing $150,000 in assistance to business and owners. This includes over $25,000 to help more than 20 businesses recently with rent payments. Also, Greater Milwaukee Foundation granted $150,000 to support our efforts. We have hosted ‘cash mobs’ to drive traffic to the area to help keep businesses afloat. We’ve also helped residents thanks to private donors Tonit Calaway, Judge David Swanson and Major League Baseball Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig. For example, over a twomonth period we surprised families shopping at Pete’s Market with over $20,000 in free groceries.

“These tactics have been made possible because of the buy-in of our vision from our partners, property owners, businesses, and residents. Four years ago, many of these relationships did not exist. They have come about through networking and trust we’ve been able to build,” said Agee.