City of Delavan works on developing a strategy to reinvigorate its center

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, March 18, 2013

— Delavan residents know they've arrived home when the wheels of their cars rumble across the red bricks of Walworth Avenue.

This is the heart of their city, its downtown. An independent bookstore, cafes, bakeries, elegant old post office, antique shops and department store provide residents and visitors with plenty of reasons to return to shop.

But the downtown also faces challenges.

A five-story, 60-room hotel of no architectural significance sits empty in the middle of the downtown. Downtown business owners, city leaders and tourism officials worry about empty storefronts, and what will happen if "something isn't done about downtown."

The past year generated several reasons for officials to be more hopeful about the downtown's future.

Past efforts

Like most cities, Delavan's once thriving downtown lost momentum. A draft report from the city's consulting firm, Vandewalle & Associates, outlines the challenges: "The city's retail center of gravity has shifted from downtown to the Highway 50/Interstate 43 interchange, several signature buildings have fallen into disrepair … downtown Delavan is losing its relevance and function as a retail destination."

City Administrator Denise Peroni thinks the best way forward is a combination of practical financing tools, the ideas and energies of the major downtown players and a little outside help.

Last year, the city council approved a tax incremental financing district for the downtown area.

A TIF district is a financing tool for governments to attract private investment. It allows municipalities to acquire property, eliminate dilapidated buildings, make improvements such as sewer, water and streets and charge the cost to a TIF district.

The city's strategic planning lead them to hire Vandewalle, a firm that has helped rejuvenate downtowns across the state.

Those efforts were built on even earlier work by a downtown revitalization committee formed by Mayor Mel Nieuwenhuis several years ago.

It hasn't been easy. At one point, a local bank offered downtown business owners no-interest loans to spruce up their facades, Nieuwenhuis said.

Nobody took them up on it.

"Many of the buildings aren't locally owned," Nieuwenhuis said. "We're trying to get everybody on the same page on this. We're all in this for the benefit of the downtown."

The Delavan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Business Association sometimes were at odds over the use of resources. Most officials, including Nieuwenhuis, were unwilling to talk about the situation, fearful that any comments might set off another round of hostilities and misunderstandings.

"I think things are getting better," Nieuwenhuis said cautiously.

'This is our home'

Brick Street Market at the corner of South Main and East Walworth is a downtown bright spot.

The market's main line is a selection of cheeses from artisan cheese makers from Wisconsin and elsewhere. It's the kind of place where you can have a conversation about where a blue sits on the edginess spectrum, the relative merits of aged Cheddar—12 years seems excessive—and what would go best with a Honey Crisp apple.

It is also a place for homemade soup, sandwiches, local art and events ranging from wine and cheese pairings, coffee sampling and, of course, a cheese-carving contest.

The market is the type of business that advocates hope can revitalize downtown.

Laura Jacobs-Welch started her business with family members in July 2008. The move came after years working for the dairy promotion organizations. When she returned to college to finish her degree "30 years late," she pursued a public communications and business administration degree.

In one of her classes, she had to create an entrepreneurial business plan, and the Brick Street Market was born. In the summer, tourism traffic keeps her busy, but it's a long stretch from October to April.

She chose the downtown location for a variety of reasons.

"We did look in other locations," Jacobs-Welch said. "Being a brand new business, we had to find the least expensive space."

The crossroads area near Interstate 43 gets more traffic but is significantly more expensive.

But more importantly, she knew her business wouldn't be only about selling cheese.

"We like old. This building fits us, and it's unique," Jacobs-Welch said. "You can create a unique identity with a building like this; it sort of speaks for itself. That's important when you're trying to create a brand."

At the time, a lot of good things were starting downtown such as events at the newly refurbished Phoenix Park Band Shell to supplement a slate of events such as Scarecrow Fest.

Many people have suggested she move to Lake Geneva where the business would find a home amidst upscale shops.

But Jacobs-Welch isn't having any of it.

She's become active in the Downtown Business Association because she believes in Delavan's potential.

"It's never been a consideration to move to Lake Geneva," Jacobs-Welch said. "Our community is Delavan, this is our home."

Hopes for the future

Everyone agrees: The empty hotel will be downtown's biggest challenge.

"The council's position, up to now, is that we would like it to remain a hotel, but that might not be a viable option," Nieuwenhuis said.

Using the building for something such as senior housing wouldn't generate traffic and encourage people to visit downtown.

Peroni suggested that a mix of offices and retail could work, as well. However it is used, it needs to be a "people generator" for downtown.

The mayor believes downtown should capture Delavan character.

"What's Delavan's niche?" Nieuwenhuis asked. "What identifies Delavan as a destination, a place to go?"

Vandewalle's draft report contained many of the expected suggestions: Financial assistance for building facelifts, a design center to help with ideas and creating a single marketing entity for the vacant storefronts in the downtown, making it easier for people who might be interest in buying or renting downtown.

But the report also included some unusual ideas such as:

-- Increasing access to Comus Lake. The lake doesn't allow motorized boats or personal watercraft, making it perfect for paddle sports, fishing and sailing. The lake offers a "serene experience" and is adjacent to downtown.

"The problem, however, is that Comus Lake is essentially hidden from view and has limited access," the draft report reads.

-- Embracing Delavan's history as a temperance colony, an arts colony and a home for the circus.

-- Capitalizing on the Phoenix Park Band Shell. The report calls the band shell one of downtown's "important features" and a "community success story."

Vandewalle recommends "the city and its downtown partners should coordinate with the Friends of the Band Shell to better leverage the events in the park to bring more people into the downtown area.


Last updated: 7:56 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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