In February 2017, Kate Crowle discovered the deconsecrated St. James Episcopal church in downtown Milwaukee. As a self-proclaimed “renovation junkie” with 10 years of home renovation experience, she decided to tackle this church renovation project as an entrepreneur. Kate said she has always had a design mind. “As a young girl, I loved building houses for dolls instead of playing with dolls,” she commented. In July 2017, Kate started meeting with the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to help make her renovation dream come true.
She needed someone to check in with, a sounding board for her ideas. Cheryl Mitchell, a consultant at the UW-Milwaukee SBDC, helped Kate with a business plan, financial projections and capital infusion. “Cheryl was so helpful in so many ways! It was nice to have someone to answer my questions,” Kate said.
THE RIGHT PARTNER
Kate is proud that the final look of the renovated space is true to her original design. One big change did occur though. Originally, she thought the business would use an in-house caterer for food and beverage. However, she pivoted when she found Gracious Events, a female-owned business with 25 years of experience. Kate said the two sisters who started the family-run business offer much more than just catering services. She described Gracious Events as her “right arm business partner” that executes the whole St. James 1868 experience on the day of booked events. They offer quality meals that truly stand out and are remembered by wedding guests. Additionally, their staff really cares about the clients as people. Gracious Events was a perfect complement to St. James 1868.
THE RIGHT SPACE
Three years of hurdles with financing to get the business started were partially resolved through $2 million in private equity because real estate group members, friends and family truly believed in Kate and her project. Another $5 million was obtained through commercial loans. Kate knew the financial success of her renovation relied upon having two different venues in the same facility, and construction on the project began in July 2018.
The Abbey space can host approximately 250 guests and provides outdoor space, a bridal suite and restrooms. The Hyde space, which was the former parish house gymnasium, can host about 150 wedding guests and also offers its own outdoor space, bridal suite and restrooms. Originally, Kate believed St. James 1868 would be primarily used for receptions, but she quickly learned ceremonies would be an essential part of the business.
THE BRIGHT SIDE DURING A PANDEMIC
The venue was scheduled to host its first event in April 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed construction and halted Kate’s ability to promote her space. There was a silver lining: since lots of churches needed to close during the pandemic, Kate found many couples interested in booking their 2020 wedding ceremonies in her non-denominational space. She began offering a ceremony-only package that was at a lower price than the traditional reception package. Kate saw another bright side: since the space was not yet fully booked, she was able to offer lots of flexibility for back-up dates to couples who wanted to reschedule. A third plus was that since many competitors’ established venues were already booked for much of 2021, the Abbey and the Hyde had a leg up in offering dates to couples who were postponing their 2020 wedding dates.
ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS
The St. James 1868 hosted their first 3 events in August 2020, and the brides and their families were thrilled with the experience. The luxury facility offers the historic venue, terraces and a courtyard with all the modern amenities in a way that is true to Kate’s original vision. She offered two valuable pieces of advice to other entrepreneurs. “Trust your gut when others try to influence your vision or tell you that your ideas won’t work,” she said. “And when you hit a snag, take a step back to process. Remain confident that you will figure it out.” She never thought she would be an owner, a real estate developer and an interior designer all at once, but she did it!