Kristi Luzar’s lit­tle big job back­ing en­trepreneurs in the city.

Kristi Luzar helps busi­nesses of all sizes, from home can­ners to ma­jor banks.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY MATT HRODEY

IN THE GRAND scheme of things, the Ur­ban Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­a­tion, led by ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Kristi Luzar and based out of an of­fice on North Martin Luther King Drive, is a lit­tle-known or­ga­ni­za­tion, but it’s an im­por­tant one. UEDA com­mands a va­ri­ety of com­mu­nity projects, such as the Take Root Ini­tia­tive spawned by Mayor Tom Bar­rett’s Fore­clo­sure Part­ner­ship, and acts as the guy-be­hindthe-guy-be­hind-the-guy for many eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and neigh­bor­hood groups through­out the city, in­clud­ing some large banks that are re­quired un­der fed­eral law to make in­vest­ments in lower-in­come com­mu­ni­ties. A few have al­ready re­ceived large fines for not meet­ing fed­eral stan­dards. “At our quar­terly meet­ings, we ask them to come and talk about it and tell our mem­bers what hap­pened,” says Luzar, who started at UEDA in 2006 and later was deputy to long­time di­rec­tor Bill John­son. “It’s be­come a place of trust to have hard con­ver­sa­tions.” TELL ME ABOUT THE PROJECT YOU WORKED ON TO IM­PROVE PEO­PLE’S CREDIT.

When I started at UEDA in 2006, my pri­mary fo­cus was as­set build­ing. I had a group of res­i­dents and asked them, what do you want to do? They said, “We want to learn how to im­prove our credit. We want to be able to teach other peo­ple in our neigh­bor­hood how to do that. A lot of peo­ple want to buy homes.” So we brought in Money Smart, which is a train­ing cur­ricu­lum by the FDIC, and trained the trainer. We did monthly work­shops that were led by res­i­dents, and there was a core group that bought homes, im­proved their credit and helped other peo­ple get out of debt. One of the res­i­dents is now a fi­nan­cial coach and a Re­al­tor.

HOW DID YOU BREAK THE ICE WITH

THIS GROUP OF PEO­PLE?

The first meet­ing was re­ally painful. Bill John­son, UEDA’s di­rec­tor at the time, had a long his­tory in do­ing fa­cil­i­tat­ing, and we asked ev­ery­body at the meet­ing what was their in­ter­est in be­ing there. And what do they think would make some­thing like this fail. The first few an­swers were like, “Oh, we want to make neigh­bor­hoods bet­ter.” Very al­tru­is­tic. Then Bill forced peo­ple to say, no, what is your in­di­vid­ual in­ter­est in be­ing here? And peo­ple said, “We need to serve low to mod­er­ate in­come peo­ple bet­ter. We have lots of fore­closed homes in our neigh­bor­hoods, and this is bad.” It be­came more hon­est.

IS IT EASY TO GAIN PEO­PLE’S TRUST IN

THE COM­MU­NITY, OR DO YOU EN­COUNTER SOME SKEP­TI­CISM?

We have a lot of trust, but I know when I talk to peo­ple, they’re tired of be­ing asked to come to meet­ings and pro­vide in­put [and then] feel like they’re not at the ta­ble. That was a lot of the feed­back we got at our sum­mit this past Oc­to­ber, and we passed it along to the MKE United group. If they re­ally want to en­gage peo­ple in mean­ing­ful ways, they have to do more than in­vite peo­ple to meet­ings. They have to in­vite them to be a part of the power struc­ture.

WHAT DO SMALL BUSI­NESSES SAY IS MISS­ING IN MIL­WAU­KEE?

The is­sue that comes up most of­ten is cap­i­tal. There’s a lot of ac­tiv­ity in the ser­vice space, peo­ple open­ing up bar­ber shops, beauty sa­lons, auto me­chan­ics, things that peo­ple like to have in their neigh­bor­hood. Hav­ing kiva.org [a mi­cro-loan web­site] come into this city has been trans­for­ma­tive, par­tic­u­larly in the food space. Restau­rants have a very dif­fi­cult time find­ing fi­nanc­ing. I’ve been told peo­ple feel like the Mil­wau­kee food space is very sup­port­ive. For other small busi­nesses, I’m not sure if they have net­works like that. I’ve been do­ing some in­ter­view­ing to find out how they find re­sources, and of­ten they don’t, or it’s through peo­ple they know.

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