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Saving downtown: Delavan's diversity

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Lisa Schmelz | July 27, 2014

Editor's note: Saving Downtown is the first in an occasional series by freelance writer Lisa Schmelz exploring how Walworth County communities are breathing new life into their historic downtown districts.

DELAVAN -- Lois Stritt does not want to be the one to turn the lights out at Bradley's Department Store in downtown Delavan. She purchased this fading slice of Americana in 2010, and though she has no plans to throw in the towel, this 77-year-old, pint-size powerhouse freely admits that running a local department store is no easy feat in today's big box, homogenized, strip mall of a world.

"It's tough to be in business down here," she said, standing behind the counter of her 162-year-old store on a recent Thursday afternoon. "There isn't a lot of promotion for downtown Delavan. I just drove through downtown Lake Geneva and there's people everywhere. It's fabulous. But there's no reason to come here. Thank God we have loyal customers. We have a customer base of about 4,000 and they save us."

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But who or what will save the other shops along Delavan's fabled, five-block brick-road downtown? None have a history like Bradley's — which was founded in 1852 as a knitting company and then built as a retail store in its current location in 1887 — to fall back on. Most here are new kids on the block and struggling to draw customers away from the chains and Amazon. And then there's the vacant storefronts, a sad reminder of better times in the city the circuses used to winter in. Who or what will give them another chance to be a part of our lives?

Patti Marsicano, a local historian and author, moved to Delavan from the Chicago suburbs in 1978, when she married her husband, Chris. The changes she's seen downtown in the last 36 years are many. The A&P is now the Dollar Tree. The dime store, pharmacy and furniture store are long gone. And the Delavan House Hotel, which has been vacant since 2004, has a new owner but is still bogged down in construction and funding woes.

"It was a stereotypical, quaint downtown when I moved here. Today, it suffers the same problems as downtowns in small towns and cities everywhere in the U.S.," she explained. "Now, all the traffic is outside of the town and they've built the stores there, which leaves the old downtown, the heart, without enough blood to keep it pumping."

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