ACRE Paves Path to Success for Minorities

Summer 2015
ACRE graduates Melissa Goins and Joaquin Altoro address prospective students and guests at the program’s relaunch event in May 2014 at Radio 88Nine in Milwaukee.

A recently revived diversity program, Associates in Commercial Real Estate, prepares Milwaukee-area students for careers in commercial real estate.

This is an expanded version of an article that appears in the print edition of the summer 2015 issue of Development magazine.

JOAQUIN ALTORO was barely out of high school when he caught the real estate finance bug. It was a spark that would eventually kindle a lifelong passion for revitalizing urban neighborhoods in his hometown of Milwaukee.

“I was only 17 when I started my own mortgage brokerage business,” he recalls. “I got licensed and certified in almost every area — real estate agent, inspection, appraising — but always came back to the finance side of real estate. I stayed busy for many years on the residential side, but always knew I wanted to get more involved with development on the commercial side. Brokering deals for small businesses gave me a real sense of satisfaction — seeing a business begin, succeed and add to the fabric of a neighborhood.”

Altoro, now vice president of commercial banking for Milwaukee’s Town Bank and actively involved with Wisconsin’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., found the path to a career in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white males daunting at first.

“To be licensed in commercial real estate takes study, certification and getting in with a firm,” he says. “For people of color like me, there wasn’t anyone to talk to about the business. There weren’t any mentors. It didn’t seem like I could reach out to anyone or any programs that could help me through that process.”

Enter ACRE

Altoro broke through the barriers he faced by obtaining training in property­ development fundamentals through the Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) program more than a decade ago. The program, which helps prepare minorities for careers in commercial real estate, opened its doors in 2004 with evening classes at Marquette University, thanks to the vision of Professor Mark Eppli and generous funding from prominent commercial real estate firms.

“When I read about the ACRE program in a newspaper, I jumped on it immediately,” Altoro says. “I didn’t think many people would apply or were interested in this field. But people of every color and race showed up. I was blown away.”

a collage of headshots of people

Members of the current Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) class range in age from 25 to 63 and come from a broad range of backgrounds; most already have college degrees and business experience.

The 28-week cycle of ACRE classes combines instruction in real estate development, property management and construction management with case studies, team presentations, industry networking events and tours of active commercial projects.

The program graduated 180 men and women of African-American, Latino, American-Indian and Asian-American descent before going dormant in 2010, a victim of the Great Recession and subsequent downturn in the CRE industry. ACRE was revived last year by Milwaukee’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), in partnership with three local universities that have strong real estate programs and a focus on urban development: Marquette’s College of Business, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). The current round of underwriting came from The Mandel Group, The Opus Group and other Milwaukee-area commercial real estate companies, as well as from NAIOP, the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin and the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee. Members of NAIOP and the Institute of Real Estate Management Milwaukee also volunteer as ACRE instructors.

“The passion of ACRE students is astounding,” says Chris Korjenek, executive director of NAIOP Wisconsin. “They enter this program for the skills and resources to further their passion for the industry and the neighborhoods they live in. It makes our community stronger, the city stronger and developers stronger.”

The current class consists of 23 students who range in age from 25 to 63, with an average age of 37. Most have college degrees and real-world business experience. Applicants must be employed full time, ­have at least a high school education and be proficient in Microsoft Word, Excel and verbal and math skills. As part of the rigorous screening and testing process, applicants are also interviewed by CRE professionals and ACRE alumni before being accepted into the program. Students who complete the course are refunded their application fee.

Successful Students

“The face of ACRE is, in my opinion, James Phelps of JCP Construction,” says Dennis Klein, formerly with C.D. Smith Construction Inc. “James went to the classes, was hired for a KBS construction company internship, ­­then joined KBS as a project engineer for four or five years. He went back to UWM, got his degree and started his own company. We have done several joint ventures with him since. What a success!”

Phelps, who holds a business finance degree and is LEED accredited, launched JCP with brothers Clifton and Jalin in 2008, three years after receiving his ACRE certification. The firm, which began renovating multifamily properties but has since expanded to general contracting, enjoys double-digit growth most years and has earned millions of dollars in revenue, despite the recession.

“ACRE helped me see all the different opportunities and revenue streams available in commercial real estate, whether it was in construction, development, maintenance or management,” says Phelps.

Enrolling in ACRE proved to be just as much of a life-changing decision for Melissa Goins, DeShea Agee and Rayna Andrews. “I had a degree in criminology from Marquette and was working as a corrections sergeant for the state of Wisconsin,” Goins recalls. “I was also an entertainment assistant for the Milwaukee Brewers and very pregnant with baby No. 2. I don’t know what possessed me to want something else to do.”

After graduating from ACRE, Goins received a year’s paid internship with a local appraisal company, became a protégé of the state’s housing finance agency mentor program and launched the Maures Development Group to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods and “bring back pride and hope to people.” Today, her company’s portfolio of 200 units is worth approximately $50 million.

Thanks to ACRE, Agee moved from selling radio advertising to a fulfilling career as an economic development specialist with Milwaukee’s city development department, earning a paid internship with Pabst Farms development and obtaining a broker’s license in residential and commercial real estate along the way. 

“Day-to-day, I work with business improvement districts on a variety of revitalization programs and projects.  Having had the ACRE experience, I see all the different roles, from developers and lenders to the legal side.  Now that I’m in city government, when I look at commercial corridors and vacant buildings, I [understand] the different components it takes to help bring in retail and entrepreneurship.”

Andrews — who holds a master’s degree in urban planning and an undergraduate degree in journalism — also credits ACRE with broadening her knowledge of land use development and “expanding our minds to know what’s possible.”

“As community relations director for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, I’m able to speak a developer’s language, know where they’re coming from and how all the pieces fit together. ACRE also opened my sphere to local developers [with whom] I otherwise would not have engaged in any capacity.  When I need to tap into that network, I now have those relationships. ACRE also helped me carve a niche to have a seat at the table.  But you can’t have a seat if you don’t know the seat even exists,” Andrews concludes.

NAIOP Wisconsin is helping LISC Milwaukee administer the ACRE program by managing logistics, refining the curriculum, identifying industry professionals to serve as instructors and developing post-graduate internship, externship and mentoring opportunities. The association is also offering complimentary memberships to all ACRE students through 2015 and working to replicate the program in other cities across the country.