Liz Brodek's goal: Doing what's best for the community
Liz Brodek has been working a completely new type of job since the pandemic changed life for the businesses she supports along Milwaukee’s Downer and East North avenues.
As executive director of the business improvement districts, or BIDs, along those two main drags, Brodek wears a lot of hats to begin with. Before March, she focused on coordinating everything from large-scale events to trash pickup. But after Covid-19 forced many of the restaurants and stores on those streets to shut their doors, Brodek has deployed her diverse skills to whole new programs.
“My job is to do what is best for the community,” Brodek said. “It’s really taking the community needs and figuring out how to accomplish those.”
In April, Brodek started the East Side On program to highlight local businesses along North Avenue and help them attract more patrons online. She partnered with the Experience Milwaukee Podcast to feature a different business every week, wrote a newsletter featuring Q&As with the owners, and organized online rally events on Facebook where people patronized those businesses during designated times.
“A couple of those instances were incredibly impactful for the businesses that participated,” said Jonathan Jackson, president of the East Side BID and CEO of Milwaukee Film.
Brodek in recent weeks dedicated a lot of time to the Active Streets for Businesses proposal that will let restaurants serve more customers with outdoor tables on sidewalks or in the streets themselves. She coordinated with several city departments and other BID directors like Beth Weirick downtown or Jim Plaisted in the 3rd Ward.
Brodek sifted through city ordinances, a task that relates to her past experience as an attorney, and tracked the latest health information involving the spread of Covid-19. It became very granular, determining spacing of tables allowed by the health department, or the Americans With Disabilities Act requirements for accessibility ramps.
“It’s been everything from talking to every business who might be able and wants to take advantage of this program and figuring out what works for them, what the configurations might be, how that works with (Department of Public Works) safety and ADA requirements, how that works for licensing,” she said. “It’s totally true that the devil is in the details, so as we conceived this great program we really had to drill down.”
That Active Streets concept recently gained final city approval and will soon be enacted.
Brodek started at the East Side BID in 2018 after friend Jeremy Fojut, co-founder of Newaukee, brought the opportunity to her attention and advocated on her behalf to the organization’s board. She was hired this spring to also lead the nearby Downer Avenue BID.
The 2018 hire marked Brodek’s return to Milwaukee after leading similar efforts in Wausau and Eau Claire. Earlier in her career, she practiced law in Milwaukee representing criminal defendants and employment discrimination plaintiffs. Before securing her law degree, she was an assistant organizer for Fighting Bob Fest in Madison.
“People ask how we get into this line of work, and I say you can come from absolutely anywhere and do this because there is an aspect of every single piece of society,” Brodek said. “One minute you are talking to an alderman. The next minute you are cleaning up graffiti or picking up trash. Then you are going to a meeting with a stakeholder, or funder. You really have to pull from a lot of different disciplines.”
Tim Gokhman, managing director of Milwaukee real estate firm New Land Enterprises and East Side BID board member, outlined the many roles Brodek fills for the organization. She handles the legal aspects of its contracts, urban planning, managing sometimes conflicting interests, the political aspects and its accounting, he said. The BIDs are city-approved organizations that receive funding through a special property assessment on commercial real estate.
Both Gokhman and Jackson praised her leadership skills.
“She has a unique combination of community engagement skills, authenticity and business leadership,” Jackson said. “Liz’s move back to Milwaukee is really exciting for our community. We’re just beginning to see her leadership.”
Brodek said her approach is founded on diplomacy and a degree of compromise. Businesses along the commercial corridors don’t always agree, and she always seeks a result where no one has to lose. She used the term, “compassionate but also stern.”
Jackson, for example, said Brodek navigated the challenge of shutting down a stretch of East Ivanhoe Place near North Avenue to traffic. Some businesses, such as the credit union on that block, need the street open to cars. Others benefit from opening it to pedestrians. Jackson said Brodek brokered the solution where the street closes to vehicles only when the credit union is closed for business.
“It’s really being able to drill into someone’s motivations for something and find what is it that is going to make them turn their head,” Brodek said. “There’s rarely a time when anyone has to outright lose. You may have to balance, but we’re all in it for the good of the community and the good of the district. Let’s take that focus and figure out what we all need to bring to the table or sacrifice to get to that point.”
- Title: Executive director
- Organizations: East Side BID #20 and Historic Downer Avenue BID #41
- Education: Bachelor's in sociology, Beloit College; doctor of laws degree from Marquette Law School
- Family: Partner, Nick O’Brien; cats (Pumpkin and Hobbes)
- Resides: Milwaukee's east side
- Age: 34
- Best decision: “To apply for a job I knew nothing about. I was working in Wausau at the YWCA as their Programs and Facilities Coordinator when my predecessor at Wausau River District approached me about applying for the job when she left. At the time, the program was called Main Street Wausau, and I remember looking furiously at Google Maps wondering where Main Street was in Wausau. I interviewed in front of the entire Board (a first for me) and, despite knowing nothing about the job, sold them on my social skills and fresh point of view and got the job.”
- Toughest decision: “Deciding to let a program go that I helped create. When I came to Wausau River District (Wausau’s BID), business owners had been planning a cross-promotional event for a few months, came close to launching, and held off right before my predecessor left. I worked with them to bring it to fruition, and while customers loved it, the business owners didn’t see the benefit they were hoping for. This was the very first program I helped create from the ground up, so deciding to let it 'die' after three years and instead devote time to other projects was a little heartbreaking.”
- Like best about your job: “The people I get to work with and for - it’s always about the people. I have two excellent Boards with visionary and supportive leaders, the business owners I work with are kind and passionate, and my fellow BID Directors in the city have become some of my favorite people in my life.”
- Most important lessons learned: “There are four that rise to the top: Everyone has something to contribute, you will fail, not everyone will like you, and time off is necessary.”
- Pastimes: Running, reading, writing, yoga, kayaking, cooking
- Thing you missed the most during safer at home: “I’m a huge introvert, so found some solace in not running from meeting to meeting. I really missed being able to just meet up with my friends casually, though. Seeing people on Zoom is not the same thing as sharing moments together in-person.”
- Favorite vacation spot: “Wisconsin’s north woods. The silence, clear skies, woods and lakes calm and clear my soul - it helps me reorient to my true North.”
- What’s playing on your car radio: “I rarely drive, but when I do, I flip between FM102.1 and 88Nine. On long drives, it’s a podcast or audiobook.”