Milton's downtown(s) in healthy place as economic seminar comes to city

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Jim Dayton
Friday, September 22, 2017

MILTON—A few years ago, some in Milton feared the new Highway 26 bypass would decrease traffic so substantially it would kill downtown businesses.

Or downtowns, plural. The city of roughly 5,500 people has two business districts after a municipal merger 50 years ago.

The fears were unfounded.

Despite some closures, Milton now has no vacant storefronts on the east side's Parkview Drive and only a handful on the west side's Merchant Row, City Administrator Al Hulick said.

The city is hosting a program Wednesday about stubborn downtown vacancies. Representatives from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. will share tips communities can use to improve historic downtown areas and fill empty buildings.

The event is open to the public via free online registration. Its message is geared toward regional business associations and business owners, and people from Janesville, Edgerton and Whitewater have signed up, Hulick said.

Before the bypass opened, Highway 26 cut directly through Milton's east side. Traffic on that road, now called Janesville Street, has decreased since the route was changed, he said.

But traffic on other arterial roads leading into the city has increased.

“People found their way to Milton. They took alternate routes,” Hulick said. “That, I truly believe, is a testament to the caliber of businesses we have in Milton. These businesses are either so impressive, so important or so unique that people will find a way to get to them.”

Hulick thinks in some way, the bypass has helped. Its 65 mph speed limit has made it a more convenient way for north-side Janesville residents to reach Milwaukee, meaning more people see Milton's welcome sign next to the bypass.

Whatever the cause, the city's low downtown vacancy rate is a sign of a healthy business climate. Hulick speculated it's lower than most similar-sized communities across the state.

Some local business owners credit city officials and the Milton Area Chamber of Commerce for weathering the one-two punch of the recession and new bypass.

Gail Nordlof, co-owner of NorthLeaf Winery, said the two entities have done a better job catering to commercial and retail establishments instead of just industrial.

The city is flexible with some types of alcohol licenses—NorthLeaf is one of two wineries in Milton—and has loosened restrictions on business signs, she said.

On a recent municipal survey, some business owners said a better working relationship between the city and chamber of commerce has improved the economic climate.

The two entities struggled to communicate before Hulick and chamber Executive Director Dani Stivarius started their jobs in 2014. They made an effort to fix that, and more work gets done when all the players are on the same team, Stivarius said.

Improved communication is important. Not all business owners feel comfortable going to city officials with concerns, she said.

“I'm kind of a buffer area for him,” she said. “They can come talk to me, and then I can go to Al with any questions or concerns they might have.”

Terry Williamson said Milton has become more effective at promoting the local economy during her 20 years of operating Goodrich Hall Antiques.

But the city still has room for improvement, she said.

She and her husband have tried to sell their building for three years so they can focus solely on their smaller location, Goodrich Antiques, on Madison Avenue. They've gotten nowhere on the sale, and the city could do more to help market their property, she said.

Williamson plans to attend Wednesday's seminar and called it a “step in the right direction.”

She's bullish on Milton's future, citing the city's museums, wineries and outlying lakes and campgrounds as attributes. More marketing will turn it into a destination for out-of-state visitors, she said.

The city recently made an effort to improve infrastructure and spruce up both downtown areas, including a full reconstruction of Parkview Drive and a new public parking lot in Merchant Row.

It has added sidewalks and flower planters to make Milton more walkable and boost its aesthetic value.

Milton is also making sure building owners keep their properties well-maintained. If a few people make their businesses look nicer, others likely will follow suit, Hulick said.

Downtowns in big cities are no longer the retail centers they once were, but other assets there mean those downtowns don't determine their communities' fortunes. That's not the case in places such as Milton, he said.

“In smaller communities, their downtown is such a large part of their identity,” Hulick said. “It becomes a part of community perception, both from folks who live in the community and work in the community and those who visit.

“If your downtowns aren't thriving, it means your town is dead.”

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