Darryl Johnson describes himself as a quiet leader. But the work that he has been able to accomplish over the past 17 years as executive director of Riverworks Development Corporation speaks volumes.

From building commercial builds, pocket parks to creating affordable housing to a developing a recreational trail, Riverworks has helped attract more than $25 million in new investment into Milwaukee’s northeast industrial corridor and created more than 90 new jobs.  

Johnson grew up in the neighborhood, which offers him a unique perspective as well as a special interest in seeing the area thrive. He fondly remembers the sense of community built into the neighborhood when his family moved there in 1960. As a young child, he would walk around the corner from his house to the neighborhood ice cream parlor and the five-and-dime store. Neither one of those remain, victims to the disinvestment and blight that took over once major businesses like Coca-Cola and American Motors Corporations left the area.  

As Riverworks’ executive director, he works to bring back that sense of community, harmony and pride in the two distinct neighborhoods that the nonprofit serves – Riverwest and Harambee. Riverworks oversees a neighborhood improvement district that works on improving the housing stock and a business improvement district that attracts new businesses to the area, including a Family Dollar, a laundromat and a shared office space for start-ups called The Vibe 

His work goes beyond strengthening the business community, however. Over the years, Johnson has made a strong effort to connect residents with the neighborhood businesses to help address issues that confront the area.

“My success and the success of the organization is really built on alliances and partnerships and getting people to come together to address those important issues that are negatively impacting our communities,” Johnson said. 

To be sure, community development work is challenging and results are years in the making. For example, work started 15 years ago to develop the Beerline Trail, a former railroad corridor that spans both Riverwest and Harambee and now is bursting with art. Future development plans include activation of the space through landscaping, repurposing old industrial buildings, additional art and other activities.

The key as well as the challenge to the work, Johnson said, is to have patience. He has gathered resources, built partnerships large and small and garnered the enthusiasm of many along the way to achieve such wins as an increase in property values and homeownership rates and a decrease in crime.

“I may have a vision for a project that might not come to fruition for another two to three years,” Johnson said. “But I just go out here each and every day to impact those things I can change and develop partnerships to deal with those larger pieces.” 

Past Frank Kirkpatrick award recipients >>

2020 civic award recipients

William C. Frye Award

Ricardo Diaz

Frank Kirkpatrick Award

Darryl Johnson

Doug Jansson Leadership Award

Christine Neumann-Ortiz

President’s Leadership in Racial Equity and Social Justice Award

Dr. Jeanette Mitchell