Communities work to revitalize downtown despite challenges

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Kevin Hoffman
Monday, July 11, 2011
— Dozens of Wisconsin communities are sprucing up their downtowns, but economic conditions over the last several years have slowed their progress.

The Wisconsin Downtown Action Council published a survey earlier this year on the health of the state’s aging downtowns. Evansville, Janesville, Beloit, Whitewater and Delavan were the only communities in Rock and Walworth counties to participate.

The report found three areas of concern for revitalization efforts: adequate funding, the recession and new business investments.

“The budget and the pressure on municipal budgets has been so strained that it has had an effect of delaying actions for downtowns,” said Jason Gilman, president of the Wisconsin Downtown Action Council and land use and development director for the city of Onalaska. “The other side, too, is there are a variety of funding sources and programs through the state and federal channels that because of the shortfall at the municipal level … there is more competition.”

Still, most communities believe they are moving in the right direction—especially in Walworth County.

Lake Geneva, with its prevalent tourist community, had close to zero vacancies in its downtown stores last year. Officials at the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce said several businesses relocated there from nearby cities, increasing revenue and marketability.

The chamber encouraged “stay-cations” during the summer, inviting regional residents to spend money there rather than taking costly trips.

Not everyone has the luxury of being a vacation hotspot, but Whitewater has managed to find similar success.

Whitewater became a “Main Street Community” in 2006. To earn that title, it had to comply with specific standards, including drafting a plan for making improvements.

Tamara Brodnicki, executive director of Downtown Whitewater Inc., said downtown has a vacancy rate of about 13 percent—about 5 percent lower than when she was hired in 2007.

She considers that promising, considering the number of rentable spaces Whitewater doesn’t have large number of buildings, but each is broken into several areas for retail, she said.

Downtown Whitewater doesn’t focus on funding of grant writing but rather beautification and education. The Whitewater Arts Alliance sponsors a public art project each year, and a fundraiser allowed the city to buy custom bike racks—one shaped like a fish at Cravath Lake and another like a coffee cup at Sweet Spot Café.

Brodnicki said the group also hosts seminars to educate people about the downtown and why its preservation is so important.

“I would say that for the most part, everyone is happy,” she said. “There are some things that people don’t like, and parking is always an issue. I wish I could add more, but it is what it is.”

The difference is noticeable, especially for those who only occasionally visit Whitewater, City Manager Kevin Brunner said.

A few of the brick buildings have been renovated, but the downtown still maintains its quiet charm. An antique store on the corner of Main and North Second streets provides a glimpse of the past, displaying cutout figures of James Dean and Betty Boop.

Barbershops, bars and restaurants occupy other spaces. Part of revitalizing downtown means developing it as a niche community, Gilman said.

“It’s pretty hard to compete head-to-head with a national retailer,” he said. “There are some great examples of businesses weathering over 120 years of operation and the onset of big box retailing. The reason they weather it is because they offer a niche market and things that big box retailers don’t.”

A large part of Whitewater’s downtown funding has come from private donors. Brunner said such efforts have totaled about $10 million over the last six years, along with 20 façade grants.

With the recession, spending has slowed over the last few years. Brunner said enthusiasm also has dwindled a bit.

“I think we reached a maturity in our downtown revitalization efforts,” he said. “We want to reduce that vacancy rate and bring in a more diverse mix of businesses.”

Many people believe Beloit created the perfect model for breathing life back into downtown. The city was named earlier this year among five communities nationally recognized for its revitalization efforts.

Downtown Beloit Association was created in 1987. Since then, property values downtown increased 192 percent, and occupancy rates are close to 100 percent.

“Downtown Beloit Association has an impressive track record of taking underutilized areas, envisioning their best use and leveraging partnerships to achieve exemplary results,” Doug Loescher, director of the National Trust Main Street Center, said when the award was announced. “Beloit’s rich arts offerings, revitalized riverfront, creative adaptive use projects and award-winning farmers market are shining examples of DBA’s outstanding work.”

Many communities would like to reach that point, but the priorities now are retaining businesses and luring new ones. That’s easier said than done.

Business growth in Wisconsin is improving, but it’s been stagnant since the onset of the recession.

“Banks aren’t loaning money,” Brodnicki said. “We’re working on building our partnership a little better with UW-Whitewater and the tech center and working more with the business college and small business development center to focus a lot more on retention.

“We need to educate the community on what’s here, why it’s here and why it’s important to think Whitewater first.”

Last updated: 5:55 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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