Janesville30.4°

Edgerton downtown struggles with turnover

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Stacy Vogel
January 27, 2008
— When Karen Pominville opened her Blue Tulip knitting shop two years ago, people warned her that many businesses don’t make it in downtown Edgerton.

“At the time, I thought that was just a terribly awful, negative thing to say,” Pominville wrote in an e-mail to The Janesville Gazette.


She tried everything she could to stay afloat. She moved down the street to a corner location. She changed her product, then downsized.


But in the end, she didn’t have enough sales to keep the business open. She closed shop in November.


The Blue Tulip is one of at least four downtown businesses to close in the last few months. Hometown Bakery, Johnson Cycle and Hoowie’s Sports Bar all shut their doors in late 2007 or early 2008. Dimax Office Solutions, a machine repair shop, will be moving to Madison in early February.


But the city added more new downtown businesses—at least six—in 2007 than it lost, said Ramona Flanigan, city administrator.


Business turnover tends to be cyclical, she said, and she can rarely point to a reason for it.


“I’ve never been able to associate it with either a national economy (or) a city policy,” she said. “Sometimes, to be quite honest, it’s a life change.”


But local business owners and state and local officials point to several reasons downtown businesses—in Edgerton and elsewhere—sometimes struggle.


In the early 20th century, downtowns formed the hearts of most communities, said Tony Hozeny with the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. But that changed in the 1950s and ’60s as people started moving to the suburbs. Malls and big-box stores soon followed.


Edgerton has it especially hard because of its proximity to Janesville and Madison and the fact that many Edgerton residents commute to work, Pominville said.


“The local people, they just don’t support you,” she said. “Ninety percent of my business was from out of town.”


Indeed, several of the businesses that have survived downtown the longest don’t depend on walk-up traffic.


Danielson’s Electronic, for example, has been in business since 1959, and it moved to its current downtown location in 1984. Besides selling and servicing electronics, it installs satellite TV and radio systems and home theaters.


The majority of the store’s customers come from phone calls, owner Brian Danielson said.


Ruthanne Koeshall, on the other hand, is hoping to attract more walk-up customers in the coming months to keep her store afloat. She moved her Racing Collectibles/Parrot Bay Boutique business to Edgerton in August when the rent got too high at her Janesville location.


She did OK in the summer, she said. Customers wandered in after eating lunch next door at Fox Pointe Grill, and she benefited from some of the downtown events the chamber of commerce organized in August and September.


But customers have grown scarce since winter began.


“The walk-in traffic has been pretty minimal, but then the weather hasn’t been very good either,” she said. “I’m hoping it gets better.”


City officials hope the downtown situation gets better with the addition of Fulton Square, the $6.1 million mixed-use development under construction near the corner of Fulton and Main streets.


Although some business owners are upset that the project has taken away valuable downtown parking, its mix of condos and retail space should bring both residents and businesses to Edgerton when completed, Flanigan said.


The Fulton Square project stems from a line of actions the city has taken to promote the downtown, Flanigan said. The first step was the creation of a tax incremental financing district and historic district downtown in the city’s 2000 master plan.


The city took the next step in the plan Monday by approving a contract with Vandewalle & Associates to start planning development at the Burno property, a piece of land across the railroad tracks from Fulton Square.


“If you look at any survey done in this community … it is always No. 1 on our list: We need to save our downtown,” Flanigan said. “It is what makes Edgerton unique.”


Flanigan is optimistic residents will respond to the city’s efforts as people realize the importance of keeping money in the community.


“It isn’t as convenient, and the prices aren’t going to be the prices at Wal-Mart,” she said. “But there are a lot of people trying to get people to see the value of buying local.”


How other communities revitalize their downtown areas

Edgerton isn’t the only city struggling to revitalize its downtown, said Tony Hozeny with the Wisconsin Department of Commerce.


In fact, for the past 20 years, the department has offered the “Main Street Program” specifically for cities trying to build up their downtowns.


The program advises cities to create comprehensive, long-term downtown plans.


“There can be a temptation to say ‘All we really need to do here is put in a parking lot, or all we need to do is we need to get one anchor store here, and that will be everything,’” Hozeny said.


“The first thing, really, is to come to an understanding that this is going to take a comprehensive effort and it’s really going to need widespread community support.”


Although Edgerton hasn’t participated in the Main Street Program, it does have a comprehensive approach to its downtown, City Administrator Ramona Flanigan said. In its 2000 master plan, it established a tax incremental financing district and a historic district downtown.


It has created a facade program and a small loan program to assist small businesses in improving the inside and outside of their buildings, she said.


The city helped in several downtown projects recently, such as the construction of the Swifthaven Community Assisted Living Facility, the renovation of Fox Pointe Grill and the movement of Sara’s Health & Fitness to a bigger location, Flanigan said.


It’s currently awaiting the completion of the Fulton Square project and has just started making plans for a piece of property nearby.


The city seems to be following at least some of the steps the Department of Commerce includes in its Main Street Program, Hozeny said:


-- Local organization. A city needs someone constantly working on the downtown, putting the structure in place for improvements.


-- Promotion. The city should hold events such as farmers markets, street markets and “different kinds of things that celebrate communities’ good things in history and, most important, make people want to come downtown,” Hozeny said.


Edgerton hosts several annual events that include downtown venues, such as Tobacco Heritage Days, Chilimania and Chamber Fall Fest.


-- Design. The city should find ways to make its downtown attractive and uniform through elements such as signage or street posts, Hozeny said.


-- Economic restructuring. A city can create an analysis of its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, Hozeny said. Then, it can create a strategy and start to drum up local support.



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