The Magazine of Marquette University | Summer 2006



Making History in Milwaukee

ACRE Program helps minorities break into the world of commercial real estate.

By Harvey Meyer

ACRE Program overview
Mark Eppli bio
College of Business Administration
Media Coverage
JSOnline: Developing minds
Initiative helps minorities get into commercial real estate (Aug. 17, 2004)
JSOnline: ACRE program opens doors of commercial real estate to minorities (Feb. 23, 2005)

Milwaukeean James Phelps occasionally pinches himslef. He's getting paid to learn about and work in an industry he absolutely loves — commercial real estate. Friends tease Phelps, who owns a couple of small residential and retail properties, about becoming the next real estate tycoon, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. Phelps' career got a big boost after he secured a spot in an innovative Marquette program that offers opportunities for minorities in commercial real estate. Through the Milwaukee Associates in Commercial Real Estate program (ACRE), Phelps, an African-American, earned a paid internship with a local firm, KBS Construction, and soon wowed the company. It hired Phelps as an assistant project manager months before the internship expired. “I'm planning on staying with this firm long term and learning all I can about project management,” says Phelps, who attends college part time. “It's an opportunity of a lifetime.”

That's the kind of tribute Mark Eppli has been hearing a lot lately. Eppli, Robert B. Bell, Sr., Chair in Real Estate in the College of Business Administration, is the passionate and dynamic professor who spearheaded ACRE's launch in September 2004. As a former real estate investment analyst, Eppli is dispirited by the paucity of minorities working in the $1.5 trillion industry, which is where about half of America's wealth is parked. One widely quoted estimate is that less than 1 percent of commercial real estate professionals nationally are African-American. A packed commercial real estate breakfast two years ago at Marquette illuminated the issue. An estimated 365 people attended, but no minorities were reportedly present. That's a glaring shortcoming for Milwaukee, one of the America's most segregated cities with steep wealth disparities between whites and minorities.

"It's a moral, business and community imperative that we have more minorities in commercial real estate,” Eppli says. “It's a moral imperative because it's wrong to have so few real estate transactions without minority participation. And it's a business and community imperative because minority populations are growing at rates that are several-fold faster than the Caucasian population, and you need people to address their real estate needs in a culturally accommodating manner.”

Local businesses and organizations have embraced ACRE's plan to jump-start participation of African-Americans, Latinos, American-Indians, Asian-Americans and others in the industry. The locally based Helen Bader Foundation was interested enough to furnish a three-year $90,000 grant to inaugurate the program.

"Milwaukee's Achilles' Heel is the central city and the lack of opportunities for minority businesses and entrepreneurs,” says Barry Mandel, president of the Mandel Group, a Milwaukee developer and past ACRE industry partner. “So to participate in a program that helps potential minority real estate developers to, hopefully, rebuild the central city, that's important to me and extraordinarily important for Milwaukee.”

Although the 26-week program running from September through April has been offered just twice, there are already clear signs ACRE is filling a void. Eppli says he is stunned by the number of applicants for each program and delighted with industry and community partners' passion for ACRE.

Says Ralph Hollman, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Urban League, a community partner: “I have to give Marquette and especially Mark (Eppli) tremendous credit for taking the leadership role to develop and support the program. It has already demonstrated its success because it's giving a large number of minorities opportunities in commercial real estate they otherwise wouldn't have.”

As an attorney practicing in commercial real estate, Andre' Wright has more than a passing familiarity with the industry. But when the New York City native who now lives in Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee, enrolled in ACRE, he garnered fresh industry perspectives. He hopes to apply those insights to future real estate investments.

Wright, who works for Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek SC in downtown Milwaukee, especially relished the visits to office and apartment buildings, construction sites and retail properties. “We got to see and experience what commercial real estate professionals experience, as opposed to just reading something theoretical,” Wright says. “Those out-of-classroom experiences were a tremendous asset.”

Real-world applications are underscored in ACRE through a rigorous curriculum that covers commercial property management, development and renovation, budgeting and investment analysis. That's the successful formula Eppli devised when he and others launched the nation's first commercial real estate program for minority students, in Washington, D.C. Eppli won both local and national awards for that groundbreaking program.

ACRE student applicants are typically 25 to 35 years old and mostly African-Americans. About two-thirds of the approximately 30 students are college graduates and several have graduate degrees and business experience.

“The students are active and educated,” Eppli says. Many live or have resided in blighted urban areas and are especially motivated to develop central city neighborhoods. “They love this city and want to be part of changing the urban terrarium.”


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