Northwestern Mutual breaks ground on 32-story tower and commons

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by Lane Kimble

MILWAUKEE -- Along Mason Street downtown, all you can see of Northwestern Mutual's 32-story tower is a big hole in the ground.  But in 2017, that tower will rise above most buildings downtown and getting there will take hundreds of Milwaukee workers committed to building themselves.

"We've made a commitment to downtown," Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske said.

A 550-foot-tall commitment with benefits reaching across Milwaukee.  Tuesday, Northwestern Mutual leaders, workers and city lawmakers celebrated the groundbreaking of  the insurance company's 32-story tower and commons.

"I wanted what we are building to be something everyone can see and appreciate," Schlifske said.

The chairman and CEO thanked Mayor Tom Barrett and city leaders for striking a deal to build the tower just  west of Lake Michigan, on the same ground where the company's old east building stood.

"We did honestly look at other options, but this is why when I sat down with the mayor I said, I want to make this work, I want to be downtown, but to do that I need the city to partner with me," Schlifske said.

Along with tax financing for the company, part of that agreement called for NML to give 25 percent of the work costs to small businesses and 40 percent of the work hours to City of Milwaukee residents.

Tuesday afternoon, dozens of those residents took another step toward working on the tower.

Two years ago, Lushion Chappell was a high school drop out and convict. 

"To be honest with you, none of this seemed possible, it seems so surreal right now," Chappell said.

Now, he's a graduate of the Milwaukee Builds program, created to train and connect residents with construction jobs.

"If we're able to create that pipeline for them, using Northwestern Mutual as that light at the end  of the tunnel, that's what motivated a lot of these guys to keep going through the process," Milwaukee Alderman Ashanti Hamilton said.

Now, a group of 45 new workers stand ready to start their careers, some helping build the NML tower.

"Nobody going to hand you nothing," Chappell said.  "You've gotta take that step, that effort to pursue what you want  out of life."

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