By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jan 07, 2011 at 5:05 AM

A tiny non-profit organization has had a major impact on plans to demolish a row of historic buildings Downtown to make way for a $50 million Marriott Hotel.

Historic Milwaukee Inc. has been active for decades in educating the public about the city's history and historic buildings and and architecture, and the group's involvement in the Marriott Hotel debate reflects its increasing focus on advocacy.

"We aren't doing history for history's sake. I think that's what people perceive us as doing. Taking a walking tour is nice but it's not an end in itself for us. We want to educate people and get people actively involved in the decision making process in the city and connect them with the world around them," said Anna-Marie Opgenorth, Historic Milwaukee Inc.'s executive director.

Developers had originally proposed razing several 19th Century buildings in the 600 block of North Milwaukee Street and the 300 block of East Wisconsin Avenue Preservationists fought to have the buildings used by the hotel and developers altered their proposal Thursday to incorporate the facades of the buildings on East Wisconsin Avenue.

However, some of the adjoining buildings would be demolished under the plan. The city's Historic Preservation Commission meets Monday to decide whether to approve the new plan.

Opgenorth and Historic Milwaukee Inc. have caught a lot of heat from proponents of the hotel project who characterize the group as being anti-development or say saving a few old buildings isn't worth turning away new jobs.

"We are not hard-line. We see preservation as a development tool. We are pro-change, and pro-growth, and pro-quality architecture, and that's why it is really important to save buildings that were built before World War II," said Opgenorth. "We need to be thinking about the long-term vitality of the city. We have a right to do that."

Opgenorth and program director Erin Dorbin are the group's only full-time staff members. Until now the group has been almost entirely funded by revenue from the roughly 500 historical tours lead by 70 trained volunteers. As the group's advocacy role expands Opgenorth sees Historic Milwaukee Inc. becoming the intermediary between the preservation community and developers.

"Right now there is really no third party mediator between developers and the city. There's not really an organized preservation constituency in Milwaukee," said Opgenorth.

"We'd like to be seen as the representatives for that constituency, so if a developer is doing something in a neighborhood where they know it will be a contentious issue they can come to Historic Milwaukee and say, 'This is what we want to do. What is the preservation community's reaction going to be to this?,' before they draw up plans that cost them $10,000."

Opgenorth and Dorbin hope to find new sources of revenue as they expand their advocacy role and try to catch up with the size and scope of similar organizations in other cities.

"We need community partners. We need community support and right now there is a huge gap. We don't have an organization like that. We are a city that deserves this. We have renowned architecture, so that is what we are trying to do," Opgenorth said.

The cornerstone of Historical Milwaukee remains their walking tour program. The group's biennial 8-week guide training program kicks off Feb. 5 with a lecture from John Gurda at the Lubar Auditorium at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The guides get benefits like a free Historic Milwaukee membership, free admission to the group's lecture series, and discounted membership at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Dorbin said the tours are crucial to educating people about the history of their built surroundings and inspiring them to advocate for preservation.

"The more of the visual connection people can make to the world around them, it triggers a response in them. Whether it is conjuring up memories or ideas from the past, it increases an emotional connection to a place. And I think that in turn makes people motivated to be concerned about the communities well being and the future," Dorbin said.

Opgenorth and Dorbin are also focusing on attracting younger members to the organization through programs like their HMI 100 mixers and tours of youthful neighborhoods like Riverwest.

"Preservationists are the actual change agents here. We are on the vanguard of how cities should be developing. The outmoded model is raze everything and let a blank area of land sit because the development doesn't go through," said Opgenorth.

"We are really trying to change that perception. We are not clinging to the past, we are thinking about the future even more as preservationists."