Matthew Bohlmann is a developer, furniture maker, and artist who has lived all around Milwaukee and now resides in Washington Heights. He is a regular in Sherman Park too because he currently owns the former Finney Library on North Avenue and Sherman Boulevard. He spends most of his days working on the building and completing projects in it. He hopes to get the building refurnished, rehabilitated, and ready as a food hall with small commercially-licensed kitchens.
Mr. Bohlmann was born in Milwaukee on July 26, 1961. His father was a union steamfitter, and his job required the family to move around a lot. When Mr. Bohlmann was seven, he, his parents, his younger brother, and two older sisters moved to Jamaica for two years. His father taught welding at a technical college there. The family then moved back to the Midwest and lived in a small town in Illinois along the Mississippi River, before moving back to Milwaukee. For the rest of Mr. Bohlmann’s childhood, the family lived in Hales Corners and he attended Whitnall High School in Greenfield. Mr. Bohlmann now lives with his wife and youngest son, a junior in high school. He has an older son who is a junior undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, studying botany.
Mr. Bohlmann is proud of his family’s roots in Sherman Park. His father was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Parklawn government housing on Sherman Boulevard. He also has grandparents buried in Graceland Cemetery. He reminisces about his five great-aunts who he called the “old maids” when he was growing up. The sisters were seamstresses who lived on 16th Street and North Avenue.
Today, Mr. Bohlmann describes himself as a small-time developer who repurposes buildings that cannot be used for their original intent. He believes in having pride in what you do, and that there should be more access to jobs. He says, "Work solves every problem… if people don’t have meaningful work, their lives don’t have meaning." In a way, Bohlmann believes that buildings need jobs, too. Empty buildings strike him as missed opportunities. So, if vacant buildings can be given a new lease in life with innovative uses, these spaces can bring novel opportunities to small businesses. He explains what happens when multiple vacant buildings appear in the city, “When I was in high school or even in my twenties, …you could walk down the middle [of] Wisconsin Avenue on a Friday night and there would be nobody; it was just dead.” Now that he has some means to bring dead buildings to life, he feels that it is his duty to restore the richness of the city. Bohlmann sees that Milwaukee is often pitted against the rest of the state, but this tension allows wealth to be extracted from the city through taxes, or when residents move away or turn their backs on the city.
Mr. Bohlmann believes that investments in local communities ultimately reward us for generations to come. He doesn't understand why more wealthy people are not trying to make positive changes. He sees places like Sherman Boulevard as gems, where the buildings are some of the finest in the city. He laments that positive stories are often obscured by news media. Yet, his optimism remains. For example, when the Sherman Park uprising happened last summer, he rode his bike early next morning and saw everyone cleaning up. This strengthened his faith in the neighborhood and reinforced his love for the residents.
Mr. Bohlmann has plans for the Finney Building after his renovations are complete. He hopes to have an indoor market with small, commercially licensed kitchens or “turn-key kitchen kiosks” that can be rented by small business entrepreneurs. He has been interviewing small business owners to see what their needs are. He has found that many small food businesses do not have the time, means, or experience to open a large kitchen. They don’t have the capital and resources to attend to city permits or create elaborate financial plans. Therefore, he hopes that potential occupants of the new Finney Kitchens would be able to share kitchens, pool resources, share rent, and schedule in ways that could help everyone involved. He envisions twelve to thirty different small businesses will come together in this building, will offer jobs, learn from each other, and learn to develop a community-minded culture.