Joseph Zilber is gone, but construction industry insiders and Milwaukee business people say his work and philanthropy for the city will affect development for years to come.
“We’re in an industry where we’re always watching and trying to learn from the people who bring forward the best ideas,” said Tom Kennedy, vice president and general manager of Opus North Corp.’s Milwaukee office. “Clearly Joe had a lot of those ideas, and that continued late into his life.”
Opus was the general contractor on the recently completed, $27 million Zilber Hall project for Marquette University. Kennedy said he was impressed by Zilber’s respect for the project’s development team.
“He never bullied his way into the project,” he said. “That’s rare in situations where you have a donor giving a large sum of money. He just wanted to make sure Marquette got the best, but he was truly about letting us handle the work and act in our own professional way.”
Zilber died Friday morning at the Zilber Family Hospice in Milwaukee. He was 92. His funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Monaghan Ballroom of Marquette University’s Alumni Memorial Union.
Mike Mervis, vice president of Milwaukee-based Zilber Ltd., said the management team he put in place will ensure the company remains strong for decades.
And beyond Zilber Ltd., which includes Towne Investments, KM Development Corp. and Benko Construction Co. Inc., construction companies throughout the city and region will carry the lessons he left behind, said Richard Smith, president of Brookfield-based R.A. Smith National Inc.
“He always had time to visit with you, regardless of how busy he was, and he employed people who reflected his personalities,” Smith said. “He influenced me in terms of his attitude toward business and making things happen regardless of economic conditions.”
One such example, Smith said, is the continued redevelopment of the former Pabst Brewery.
More than $70 million to date has been spent on the Brewery project, and Mervis said Zilber Ltd. will continue efforts to bring more projects to the site.
“Other people tried and failed, and he worked with the city to provide a win-win situation,” Smith said. “He bought it without any specific plans — at least that he shared — for the city, and it’s something to say for being open and transparent in public/private partnerships.”
Zilber’s work to redevelop Milwaukee also affected neighborhoods. In 2008, Zilber chose Lindsay Heights on the north side of Milwaukee as one of the first neighborhoods to receive grants from his Zilber Neighborhood Initiative, a 10-year, $50 million effort to develop community quality-of-life plans, including plans for future development.
Sharon Adams, program director and co-founder of Walnut Way Conservation Corp., said the neighborhood redevelopment already is attracting plans for park redevelopment, senior housing and new apartments. It will take a long time to turn around a neighborhood that was disenfranchised for almost 40 years, she said, but it can happen, and that’s a lesson other Milwaukee developers can learn from Zilber.
“You talk about his legacy and you look at this city which has seen generations, decades of disinvestment,” Adams said, “and he showed people you could turn it around and make points of proud destination.”