Downtown is not dead. It is a vibrant, entrepreneurial business community. If you haven’t been there for awhile, then revisit your downtown. Catch lunch at Loula’s or the Buzz Café. Plan a night out enjoy dinner at Wine Knot or Sazzy B. Then take in a show at the Rhode or Fusion. Walk the streets and check out Elsie Mae’s Cannery and Pies and Sandy’s Poppers. In just six months (January – June 2016), eleven new businesses have opened downtown (with attrition, a net gain of five), four businesses have expanded or relocated, and there have been thirteen building renovations, amounting to over $700,000 in new commercial investment and a net gain of thirty-five full-time jobs and twenty-five part-time jobs.
Downtown is not full of vacant buildings. There is a twenty percent vacancy rate, but seven larger buildings account for over half of the vacant square footage in the entire downtown. Therefore, a drive down 58th street can be misleading. Of the seven, five have new owners or a plan for redevelopment. The Orpheum theater and Leader store have new owners. The Alford Building is now owned by the city. The Kresge Building is the future home of Kenosha Creative Space and the Heritage House boutique hotel project is still in the works.
Downtown does not need to be resuscitated. It needs to be nurtured. Even though there are strong signs of life in downtown Kenosha, reaching its full potential will take a lot of work.
Such a large undertaking requires a plan. The Downtown Strategic Development Plan (The Lakota Plan), was adopted to provide a visionary guide for downtown for the next twenty years.
It will take money. The Lakeshore Business Improvement District levies a special tax upon the businesses within the downtown/lakeshore parameters. A few years ago, it generated over $130,000 a year, but in recent years, it has been capped at $80,000 a year. It is the primary source of funding for Downtown Kenosha, Inc (DKI).
It will need coordination. DKI is a nonprofit organization tasked with implementing the Lakota Plan, as it collaborates with the Lakeshore Business Improvement District, the Kenosha Area Business Alliance (KABA), the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Kenosha, Wisconsin Main Street, business owners, and developers. DKI provides the community support for moving the plan into reality. Among other things, DKI provides support and services for business owners in the form of publicity, a pamphlet directory of downtown businesses, a web site, the beautiful hanging flower baskets, several annual downtown festivals, Second Saturdays, and other forms of promotion and support.
It will take people. DKI has one employee, Chris Naumann, but Chris has a volunteer army of well over one hundred people who serve as ambassadors for downtown at lakefront festivals, pull weeds, and promote downtown on social media. They even crafted an architectural design plan for a future facade improvement program. This organization, steered by a qualified, experienced person, like Chris, is essential for the growth and nurture of the downtown business community. In just six months DKI has provided 1,053 volunteer hours of service valued at $45,055.
Now, as KABA’s three-year agreement of financial support for DKI has concluded, the civic and business leaders in Kenosha need to underwrite and expand the good work of this organization, support the entrepreneurs and volunteers who love downtown, and bring the vision into reality.
Please, don’t send me hate mail because I don’t live in Kenosha. We live just barely across the state line, but spend just about all of our money in Kenosha. That should count for something. We chose it as our destination for shopping, entertainment, and recreation over the Illinois suburbs, and we like it a lot. Maybe, as an “outsider” who hangs out here, I can be little more objective.
Here is my take on K-town.
In the 1830’s John Bullen, Jr. of the Western Immigration Company envisioned a thriving port strategically located on Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee. In 1900 the Sullivan-Becker engineering company built a prototype steam car that was the predecessor of a century of Kenosha auto manufacturing. Just a few years ago an old Chrysler plant and Simmons Bedding factory were transformed into the crown jewel of Kenosha, a redeveloped lakefront of condominiums, parks, pedestrian paths, streetcars, sculptures, marinas, museums, markets, and festivals. Farm land surrounding Kenosha and its suburbs is now thriving with business parks that have turned Kenosha into a distribution hub for international companies.
Like every city, Kenosha has had its ups and downs, but as industry and the economy changed, Kenosha has always fought back, doing whatever necessary to re-invent itself and continue as a thriving, visionary city. Now the visionaries and the entrepreneurs are focusing on downtown. Their work is worthy of support.
The next to last paragraph did not appear in the original column because it put the piece over the word limit, but I think it adds important historical perspective. So, I included it here.
Some things have changed since I interviewed Christopher Naumann, Executive Director of Downtown Kenosha, Inc. for this column last October. Chris has moved on and Loula’s has become Hazel Grace Vintage. What has stayed the same is the huge group of volunteers who assist this vital and unique business community as it moves forward toward reaching its full potential.
Photo: Public Domain