This is a story that, at it’s essence, is all about making friends.
It seems simple enough, meeting people, getting to know them, finding common ground, having a few drinks, and exchanging contact information.
But the way Ian Abston tells it, if you’re a newbie here in Milwaukee, it is something that’s very difficult to do – and he set out to change that.
“I went to college in Oshkosh,” he says, “(Milwaukee) is a hard town to move to in that there is not a ‘new people’ community. A lot of people that were born here live here and have never left. They leave for college and move back … it doesn’t come as easy in cities where people have lived all their life and have had experiences that you are not a part of.”
Finding people became a goal; bringing people together was a mission. And for Ian, it wasn’t just about the gathering; it was about making the experience memorable so people wanted more.
“It takes a while to get invited to the dinner party.”
I met Ian at his 12th floor downtown office on an early Sunday afternoon. He greeted me relaxed in a wool topcoat and a great lakes t-shirt; and after laughing about the fact that he may have had one too many glasses of wine the night before, he instantly comes across as a guy who is extremely comfortable in his own skin. He speaks in a deeper baritone voice that carries, and has an aura of confidence around him. He is charismatic, but in no way cocky—he’s welcoming and open.
Ian has become a big champion for cities, specifically Milwaukee, and is a spokesperson of sorts for the millennial generation (a term that he isn’t fond of, but lives with). His presentation at TedX Fargo from last July is evidence of his passion and charisma. His main focus is on community building, and connecting people through memorable experiences. For him, success in the city is all about creating culture.
His gift for bringing people together began to manifest itself in Elkhart Lake while he was in high school. He lived about three miles outside of town, and remembered his classmates talking about the fun they were having in town, and Ian, relegated to the country with only a bike for transportation, was missing out. “I invited people to my house to play in the woods, play basketball,” he says. And the country turned out to be great cover once he and his friends discovered they could get their hands on a few adult beverages.
He did the same in college at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. He remembers how little there was to do in Oshkosh. “It’s the same old bars and house parties,” he told me. So he decided to get ambitious and do something “cool and fun” at a unique venue, scoring a storage hangar at the EAA in Oshkosh. He discovered it was difficult to get an alcohol permit, but was not deterred. ”I found out you don’t need a permit if you’re hosting a wedding, so we hosted a fake wedding – the wedding of Rachel and Phil – we pulled the names from a Simpson’s episode – you know, the McCrackens.”
They sold tickets, had invite cards printed and bused people to the hangar. It was a huge success. Once he saw people’s reaction to the proposition of a party in an airplane storage hangar, he knew he was on to something. “It began my love for creating experiences,” he says.
This experience was pivotal in what would become an organization called Newaukee, which Ian was instrumental in starting in 2009. After his graduation from UW-Oshkosh he moved to Milwaukee to take a job at Junior Achievement where a majority of the 14 employees were older, with families and kids – and not up for a night out. Ian also realized that people tend to go to the same three or four neighborhood bars and aren’t likely to branch out.
“People want to be told what to do and know that like minded people will be there.”
He wanted to get involved with a local networking organization, but quickly realized it was not his thing. “I don’t want to go to a networking event, I want to go hang out with good people – there’s a big difference.” The idea behind Newaukee came to be while hanging out with a few friends. In Ian’s words, “I said I know ten people and I bet you know ten people – we’ll contact the Hi Hat (a popular bar off of Brady Street) and I’ll book a band and have a happy hour and some food.” The work paid off and the idea took hold. A lot of people showed up and got Ian thinking. “Maybe we are onto something.” The get-togethers quickly grew from 100 people to 400.
Ian loves Milwaukee. Few want to see the city thrive like he does. “My passion for Milwaukee was not intentional,” he says, pausing to think for a second then perking back up. “Wherever you are is home, so wherever you are, there you are … I want to make it fun, and meet all the people and squeeze every ounce of life out of it.”
Ian wanted more for Newaukee than the Hi-Hat events. The organization is responsible for the innovative Night Market, which takes over Wisconsin Avenue during the summer and attracts more than 15,000 people. They came up with the idea for the Shamrock Shuffle, and host New Year’s Eve parties that aren’t stuck in the mundane and traditional hotel ballroom, black tie vibe.
He sold his part of Newaukee around 2015, looking for the next big challenge, unsure of what he wanted to do next. He had a reputation for bringing people together, and having innovative ideas around how to do it.
Municipalities were approaching Ian for his expertise, one of which happened to be Franklin, which was looking for ways to utilize the newly developed Ballpark Commons, a facility known as “The Rock.” It has four state-of-the-art baseball diamonds, and a bar and grill at it’s center. Franklin was looking for ways to utilize the space beyond baseball. So they talked to Ian.
During the Ballpark Commons project, Ian met a man named Blair Williams who owns a company called WiRED Properties and is also a consultant to the Milwaukee Bucks. Blair is the team’s Managing Director of Real Estate.
He and Ian found that they had a lot in common. As the WiRED Properties website says – “Real estate is about more than structures that take up space; it’s about spaces that structure lives.” There was a mutual interest in not just sucking up space to make money; there was a desire to make spaces more meaningful where people can come together and culture and community can be created.
“There’s the art museum and Harley, but go to Comet and get the Bloody Mary or eat at Corazón and discover the secret shit.”
Ian and Blair co-own a part of WiRED Properties called WiRED MAP, which stands for “Millennial Action Plan” where they work with municipalities and companies. “We try to figure things out like, how can I make West Allis cool?” He also has worked with Kenosha in bringing food trucks to Simmons Island, an area in desperate need of revitalization. He has also discovered that municipalities don’t know what they have.
It’s those types of places that are the essence of a place. They’re the things that aren’t generic and have character. You meet the best people too – these places serve as potent vehicles in getting to know a city.
Ian and Blair are dedicated to finding new uses for underutilized spaces across Milwaukee. There is lots of underused space just dying for someone to come along and take charge. Wired Properties hopes to do just that – working with the city to get it done.
“We’re in a unique place where people hire us as consultants – all these communities share cool shit that’s going on there – except the cool shit doesn’t know how to speak government,” Ian says.
We closed out our conversation talking about a few quick topics – the wake up call it was for Milwaukee losing out on the Amazon deal, and his excitement for the Milwaukee streetcar, which he admits is going to be underwhelming due to unfair expectations. “People expect it to either fail or revitalize Milwaukee. It will be a nice amenity – we need to start building alternative transportation usage – it should be double its size. I wish we could do more faster.”
His title at Wired Properties – “Community Creation Expert” could not be more appropriate. It’s something he has been doing, in a way, since those early days in Elkhart Lake. When asked how he defines this title, he doesn’t hesitate.
“I give voice to people who are creating culture within the community but don’t have access to network, and put lighter fluid on it.”