Downtown Cambridge keeps small-town feel while continuing to attract visitors

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Stacy Vogel
Monday, April 14, 2008
— Jeff Leoni grew up in Chicago, but he fell in love with the small-town charm of the tiny village of Cambridge.

He and his wife bought the Cambridge House Bed & Breakfast four years ago, and Leoni instantly got involved in the thriving downtown community.

Today, he’s co-president of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.

“He just jumped in with both feet,” said Leoni’s co-president, Herb Redmond. “And that’s the thing. You have to have a group of people willing to invest the time (in downtown).”

Efforts from business owners, residents and government is one key to a thriving downtown in a small community, but it’s not the only one, experts say.

Planning is critical to a successful downtown project no matter the size of the community, said James Otterstein, Rock County economic development manager. The community has to determine what the market will support, taking into consideration the local demand for goods and services, convenience, proximity to metropolitan areas and other aspects, he wrote in an e-mail to The Janesville Gazette.

Several Rock County communities are hoping to revitalize their downtowns.

Edgerton and Milton both passed downtown plans in the last few years and now are working on implementing them. Evansville is looking at downtown revitalization as part of its comprehensive planning process and hopes to have a plan ready in May.

One of the first things small communities have to decide in planning downtowns is whether they want to attract locals or visitors, Otterstein wrote. The decision will help a community find its target consumers and learn their needs and wants.

Cambridge historically has catered to visitors, though it has a loyal base of local customers, officials said.

The village of about 1,100 built its downtown around Rowe Pottery Works, a renowned pottery shop on Main Street. Other artisan shops such as galleries, jewelry stores and craft shops sprouted around it.

Today, visitors come from all over to spend a day shopping and eating, Leoni said. The village offers several bed-and-breakfasts and a full-service restaurant within a few blocks, he said.

“The uniqueness of Cambridge is that it’s all pretty contained,” he said.

But the village has seen its share of tough times.

Businesses took a hit three years ago when the state reconstructed Main Street/Highway 12, creating a ditch across the road for months.

The village took the construction as an opportunity to spruce up Main Street, installing historic light fixtures, cobblestone and attractive sidewalk paving. Donn Trieloff, village president, estimates the village spent about $1.2 million on the project.

Businesses appreciate the village’s efforts and in turn take their own steps to improve downtown, Trieloff said.

The little touches also make the downtown more appealing to visitors, said April Little, who until recently served as village administrator.

“There were a lot of physical improvements I think that make the downtown look more attractive than it has in years, maybe more than ever, and I think that helps to draw people back in,” she said.

Little is now village administrator in Belleville, which is just starting its own downtown revitalization project.

Many people don’t understand how complicated such an undertaking can be, she said.

“People think that (by) putting ads in a magazine, (visitors) will come,” she said. “But you have to have things for them to look at and do once they come down.”

Communities need to look at their mix of businesses to see what’s missing, she said. For example, Cambridge didn’t have a full-service restaurant downtown until Tru Tavern & Grill opened at 157 W. Main St.

The restaurant has been a huge draw for people looking to relax after a long day of shopping, said Blake Radtke, general manager.

The village also has found a benefactor in Craig Carpenter, a native son who has bought and restored four downtown buildings.

All the while, the village works to maintain that small-town feel, Trieloff said.

“Yeah, we’re a quaint little village, but that’s what we want to be, so we work hard at staying that way,” he said.

Janesville’s downtown plan is in its first phases

Janesville got its first look in October at a downtown plan from consulting firm Vandewalle & Associates.

The plan calls for:

-- More emphasis on the Rock River, with attractive facades facing the river and extended river walks and bike paths.

-- More downtown housing.

-- A connection with Mercy Hospital and Dean Riverview Clinic.

-- Renovations of historical buildings.

The plan also calls for a public-private partnership to help implement changes. The Renaissance Partnership will put together community leaders, such as Forward Janesville members, with city officials to identify potential redevelopment projects and make recommendations to the city council, said Brad Cantrell, community development director.

John Beckord, Forward Janesville president, and City Manager Steve Sheiffer are co-chairmen of the nine-member board.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Development Alliance, another public-private partnership, will continue to work on the day-to-day needs of downtown, such as marketing, distributing façade loans, attracting new businesses and assisting existing business owners, Cantrell said.

The Downtown Development Alliance also is looking at the possibility of a Business Improvement District, another recommendation of the plan, said Christine Moore of Forward Janesville. Businesses in the district would pay a special assessment to fund downtown projects.

Small town downtowns

Several small cities in Rock County are looking to revitalize their downtowns. Here’s a snapshot of a few:

Edgerton adopted a downtown plan in 2000 and has been working to implement it ever since, City Administrator Ramona Flanigan said.

Construction is under way on Fulton Square, a $6.1 million project from Keller Development that will combine retail space below with housing units above. The city also has requested proposals to develop a nearby property.

Other projects the city has undertaken include helping Sara’s Health and Fitness move into a larger location and finding a developer for Swifthaven Community Assisted Living, Flanigan said.

Milton adopted a downtown plan for Merchant Row in 2007 that would emphasize the neighborhood’s railroad roots, attract local food outposts and create more downtown parking.

The city implemented part of the plan by buying The Squeeze Inn property, 105 Merchant Row. It is seeking proposals to build a mixed-use development with underground parking there.

Evansville is creating an economic plan, including downtown development, to guide it in the coming years. Nearly 100 local business people attended an economic development summit in January to kick off the effort.

About 30 people from local businesses now are serving on five task forces, and they will present their findings at an economic development committee meeting later this month. The committee came up with the five areas to focus on based on feedback from the summit: downtown revitalization, entrepreneurial environment and networking, marketing, workforce development and government relations.

Each task force is developing goals and an implementation plan. The downtown revitalization group might have objectives such as an active solicitation of new businesses to fill storefronts or have additional events to draw people downtown, Mayor Sandy Decker has said.

The city hopes to have a plan ready to implement by the end of May.

A look at downtowns

Downtowns have become a focus for many communities in Rock County.

Janesville, Edgerton, Milton and Evansville all are creating or implementing downtown revitalization plans, looking to attract locals and visitors to the heart of their cities in an age of strip malls and big-box stores.

But what can downtown plans do for a community? In a two-day series, The Janesville Gazette looks at successful downtowns and what Rock County communities can learn from them.

Sunday: Many elements of Janesville’s latest downtown plan, such as public-private partnerships and downtown housing, have been implemented in Beloit for years. Beloit has been transforming its downtown for 20 years, and the work isn’t done yet.

Today: Despite its small-town feel, the village of Cambridge in Dane County has a thriving downtown, attracting visitors to its artsy shops and charming bed-and-breakfasts.

Small communities have to decide whether they want to appeal to residents or visitors and then follow through on plans to attract their target audiences, experts say.

Last updated: 9:57 am Monday, December 17, 2012

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