“This is a really big deal, but we’re just getting started,” says Antonio Butts, Executive Director of Milwaukee’s Walnut Way Conservation Corp. Butts has reason to feel optimistic when referring to his nonprofit’s social enterprise, Blue Skies Landscaping (BSL), and its first-ever permanent facility in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood of Milwaukee.
Since its founding in 2012, BSL has achieved average annual growth of 20 percent and grown to a staff of 16 people while focusing on a triple-bottom-line of jobs, revenue, and environmental stewardship — a remarkable achievement for a program operating out of a patchwork of leased and donated spaces for its first nine years in existence.
In a Nutshell
What: New headquarters for Blue Skies Landscaping, a social enterprise run by the community development nonprofit Walnut Way Conservation Corp
Sector: Community Development
Location: Milwaukee, WI (Lindsay Heights)
Size: 6,300 square feet
IFF Support: $284,000 loan to acquire the property and purchase equipment necessary to scale the social enterprise
IFF Staff Lead: Darian Luckett, Director of Lending – Wisconsin and Iowa
Impact: Four full-time jobs created
Walnut Way recently celebrated the start of the next phase of BSL’s lifecycle with a flag-raising ceremony at the landscaping company’s new headquarters, which will provide the social enterprise with 6,300 square feet of dedicated space for its operations. The property is split between two garages for storage and maintenance work, office space to manage the growing enterprise, and a training center for BSL’s job training program. The program is an essential element in Walnut Way’s long-term plan to revitalize a neighborhood deeply affected by lost manufacturing jobs and other structural disinvestment. The unemployment rate in the Lindsay Heights area is three times the national average, and landscaping is a growing sector of the economy.
A $284,000 loan from IFF financed the acquisition of the property – which was becoming blighted – as well as new landscaping equipment necessary for BSL’s growth trajectory. This is the second loan IFF has closed for Walnut Way since 2019.
Though renovations will be necessary to fully realize the new headquarters’ potential, the nature of the property as a former HVAC and sheet metal workshop allowed BSL to move in and benefit from the space immediately.
“The new Blue Skies headquarters is a dramatic improvement for the program’s infrastructure and serves as a catalyst for growth and improved operations,” says Amber Ascher, Blue Skies Landscaping’s Environmental Stewardship Operations Coordinator. “The space to service and house our trucks, as well as landscaping and snow removal equipment and tools, was desperately needed and is being fully optimized. Having access to this larger space has also allowed us to safely resume our in-person weekly team meetings and learning labs, which are instrumental in skill advancement and team cohesion.”
In addition to providing BSL with the infrastructure it needs to thrive today, the location comes with room to grow in the form of an adjacent vacant lot. As BSL expands in its new location and takes on new work, additional employment opportunities will be created for Lindsay Heights residents who might otherwise struggle to access sustainable employment that pays a living wage. Given BSL’s track record and Walnut Way’s accomplishments in community development in recent years, it’s likely the extra space will be necessary sooner rather than later.
BSL has earned a sterling reputation in Milwaukee by taking on projects that have had a transformational impact in Lindsay Heights and beyond. This includes converting vacant lots into “pocket parks” that feature fruit trees, rain gardens, and upcycled wood benches, as well as reducing stormwater pollution through green infrastructure projects. BSL’s eco-friendly focus was a major contributing factor to Lindsay Height’s certification as Milwaukee’s first “eco-neighborhood,” a designation awarded by the city’s Environmental Collaboration Office in recognition of the number of sustainability projects in the community.
Blue Skies Landscaping’s new headquarters is a continuation of our vision for intentional investments in Lindsay Heights that result in environmental and economic justice.
When combined with more traditional landscaping activities like cutting grass and snow removal, BSL has built an operation that can cover the basics at residential and commercial properties while also providing highly specialized services that few other providers can match. It’s a formula for success that has earned BSL a dedicated customer base that has fueled its growth.
BSL now maintains 175 bioswales across the City of Milwaukee that employ vegetation in low-lying areas to divert stormwater runoff and, in 2020 alone, planted 1,097 stormwater-diverting perennials, installed 556 linear feet of Lannon stone and ADA walkways during a revitalization of Victory Over Violence Park, and restored nine parks citywide. At its new facility, BSL plans to put its green expertise on full display, with the location serving as a demonstration site for a wide range of green infrastructure and sustainable urban landscaping – further cementing Lindsay Heights’ status as a model for climate resilience in the region.
“We are investing in a community that has been systematically overlooked and ignored for far too long,” Butts says. “Working collectively, we can create community resilience and reverse systemic disinvestment, and Blue Skies Landscaping’s new headquarters is a continuation of our vision for intentional investments in Lindsay Heights that result in environmental and economic justice.”
IFF has provided almost $111 million in loans in Milwaukee in the last decade. Learn about several of the projects that capital made possible here.