I love Kenosha.
Sometimes I play a little mental game, dreaming about what I would do if I were King of Kenosha. I chose king as my imaginary title, instead of a more realistic one, like mayor, city administrator, community development director, or councilman. That way I don’t have to bother with the pesky realities of politics, public opinion, zoning, absentee landlords, and the economy.
However, my imaginary world comes crashing down when I realize that people came to this nation to get away from tyrants and kings. Besides, I don’t even meet the residency requirements to hold any sort of public position in Kenosha, because I live in Illinois (by a block and a half.)
Please don’t hate me because of where I live.
Seriously, Kenosha has a lot going for it, and I think residents may finally be realizing that. When 1,600 jobs come to town with one new employer, and your old industrial waterfront becomes a model of redevelopment, it takes more creativity to complain about your hometown.
Though I live out-of-town, I am very much within the market sphere of the city. My wife and I are in Kenosha several times a week, buying cheaper gas and cheaper groceries, dining out, getting haircuts and oil changes. We buy clothes and home improvement supplies there, while happily paying less in sales tax. Kenosha is our place of business.
For over twenty years, I have observed a city that has turned challenges into opportunities. Clearing abandoned industrial sites and redeveloping them into something that becomes a huge, new community asset seems to be a special skill set that your community leaders have developed.
I like the viable neighborhood shopping areas, a strong European influence, tons of summer festivals and free outdoor music, and an amazing performing arts and musical tradition. There are large business parks with new businesses and new jobs, and educational institutions to equip a well-trained workforce.
That big lake to your east is kind of nice, too.
Many cities would love to have even a few of those assets in their ledger.
The Lakota Downtown Strategic Redevelopment Plan offers an excellent assessment of the downtown area, and an important roadmap for the future. Happily, it seems your leaders are actually systematically working the plan.
Here are a couple of my dreams for Kenosha’s future.
Connect the lakefront and the downtown. Harbor Park is only one block from Sixth Avenue and Southport Marina is only three blocks away, but it seems like they are in different worlds. How many weekends have we seen thousands of people on the lakefront for the Harbor Market or a festival, with only a few scant souls finding their way downtown?
I believe in just a few years we will see the benefits of the extended streetcar route, but there remains the need to connect the redeveloped lakefront with the redeveloping downtown for those on foot, bicycle, or in their own cars. Special signage, bike lanes, and streetscaping would be an investment in the future of a prosperous downtown.
Become a cultural and tourism hub. If you can build a Civil War Museum here, why not a museum highlighting Kenosha’s influence on the auto industry (as has been suggested.) Why not build a performing arts museum, featuring the huge heritage of actors and musicians from Kenosha. Why not a maritime museum? (I think it would be the only one between South Haven, MI and Manitowoc, WI)
Entertainment and tourism will be the commercial core of a redeveloped downtown. At least one of the three theaters downtown should be completely restored as a performing arts venue. With housing, and entertainment downtown, more restaurants and shops will follow.
You already have a couple of magnificent fountains on the lakefront; why not develop a master plan to become the upper Midwest’s “City of Fountains?”
Remember, there was over $181 million spent by tourists in Kenosha County last year, largely because some people had a vision for what Kenosha could become.
I know there are a million details to attend to and countless hurdles to overcome for these dreams to become a reality.
However, considering the improving economy, the thousands of new jobs, and the fact that Kenosha has turned the corner on its re-invention, now is the time to build a city that will be an even more amazing place to live and to visit.
This is a reprint of my June 1st column in the Kenosha News.