Wisconsin’s Great American Main Streets

  

Success stories come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Wisconsin’s Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA) winners are no exception. From small town charm (Sheboygan Falls, population 7,775) to big city bustle (Green Bay, population 104,779) and everything in between, our GAMSA winners have cultivated vital districts that uniquely reflect the local community. From renowned regional events to cultural centers, these districts showcase everything that the various communities have to offer as well as the significant effort required to reach that pinnacle. While Chippewa Falls and Sheboygan Falls found success early, receiving the designation seven years into their journey, Beloit’s success is measured by multiple decades of consistent performance.  Join us as we take this opportunity to review the various routes that each community took on the path to becoming a truly great Wisconsin Main Street.

Sheboygan Falls – 1995 GAMSA

The Sheboygan Falls Main Street program began in December 1988, when it was named one of the first five pilot Main Street programs in the state of Wisconsin. At this time, only three buildings had been renovated, and many stood vacant. However, the actual push for downtown revitalization began nearly 15 years prior, when a few passionate individuals formed a Sheboygan Falls historic preservation group out of Sheboygan County Landmarks Association. Two separate historic districts were created as a result of this effort. The community effort to launch the program resulted in significant private sector investment, as local property improvements totaled more than $3.6 million in the program’s fifth year after steady year-over-year improvements.

Early successes included the Brickner Woolen Mill Apartments, which was a successful $3.3 million adaptive reuse project to create affordable housing units along the river in downtown. Projects like this, along with many individual business examples, paved the way for the Brickner Square project and 1878 Broadway redevelopment, which both resulted from local investors pooling funds to purchase and restore long-vacant properties. Bemis Manufacturing was an early investor, leading by example through renovations of a downtown showroom facility, but also providing $15,000 in seed funding towards a revolving loan pool for other downtown property owners. Early year activities also set the stage for community-oriented and family-friendly events such as the Ducktona 500, which has grown to 8,000 annual attendees.

Today, Sheboygan Falls is one of Wisconsin’s successful Chamber-Main Streets, an organization model made possible when the larger business community recognizes that the health of the downtown center is a reflection of overall economic opportunity. Sheboygan Falls has won more than 40 statewide Main Street awards in virtually every category offered. The program is especially recognized for its well-preserved historic architecture and successful community-wide partnerships designed to engage the City, business community, civic organizations and residents to preserve and promote a strong and vibrant local community while retaining its quintessential small town charm.

Chippewa Falls – 1996 GAMSA

Chippewa Falls Main Street was established in 1989, just one year after the formation of the state program. Chippewa Falls' Main Street program has always been known for its abundance of dedicated volunteers and engaged business community, and is no stranger to publicity. In addition to receiving the GAMSA, Chippewa Falls was named by Time magazine as one of America's top 10 small towns to live in, was mentioned in Wisconsin’s State of the State address, and was named in 2000 as one of 12 national "Distinctive Destinations" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The City has been a strong partner in the downtown, with multiple staff and elected officials serving on the organization’s board and committees. Together, the community and Main Street have addressed numerous issues, including a 2005 highway bypass of downtown catalyzing investment in wayfinding and marketing initiatives downtown. Beginning in 2014, the City embarked on a $10 million investment to restore the waterfront, starting with a new visitor center at the gateway to downtown. Plans also include a new riverwalk and waterfront event space, and the City is in negotiations with developers of a proposed hotel on an infill site downtown.

Success over the program’s 26-year tenure includes $58 million in private investment and $43 million in public investment, including the previously mentioned riverfront improvements. The supportive business climate has facilitated 256 individual property improvement projects and sustained near 100 percent storefront occupancy along Bridge Street. Not surprisingly, Chippewa Falls Main Street has won 39 Wisconsin Main Street awards, with a particular emphasis on retail events and community engagement, most notably with the long-running Paint the Town event series. Also noteworthy is the district’s emphasis on high-quality marketing and design initiatives, which carry through on everything from logos to collateral and streetscape elements.

La Crosse – 2002 GAMSA

Created by a public-private partnership in 1990, Downtown Mainstreet, Inc. of La Crosse spearheaded the creation of the city's first comprehensive master plan for downtown in order to address perceived economic deterioration of the City’s historic district. Today, La Crosse is one of the largest National Register Commercial Historic Districts in Wisconsin, containing 96 contributing buildings. Early preservation efforts led to the completion of a $2.9 million river levee project to protect downtown from Mississippi River flooding. In addition to serving a critical purpose, the project features a riverwalk, recreational boat docking facility, wayfinding signage and downtown streetscaping initiatives.

In its first 12 years as a program, downtown gained 170 new residential units, and over 108 building and storefront façade restorations have been undertaken, resulting in an increase of $40 million in assessed property values. With the recruitment of major high-tech corporations such as Firstlogic and CenturyTel's Midwest Regional Headquarters, employment is now at an all-time high, surpassing employment at the height of the prosperous retail years.

Today, downtown La Crosse is known for its arts scene (including a strong public art program and state-of-the-art Weber Center for the Performing Arts), as well as a commitment to downtown residential development (the Tour of Upper Living regularly sells out). Last year the downtown welcomed $12 million in private investment. This pales in comparison to the $191 million in projects currently under way, which is expected to add nearly 400 new hotel rooms, 246 residential units, and 145,000 new square feet of commercial space and generate more than $22 million in additional consumer activity.

On Broadway, Green Bay – 2009 GAMSA

The Broadway District sits on the west bank of the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As a riverfront location, the area has long been a center of commerce, whether for the fur trade, lumber, paper, or, today, as a hive for small businesses and entrepreneurs. However, this transition was not without difficulty, as the 1980s witnessed the district as a high-crime area best defined by the level of disrepair and vacancy in the corridor. In 1995, a group of persistent local merchants, neighbors and community leaders launched a Main Street organization to reclaim the street. Some early triumphs included a new streetscape, a partnership with local police, and creation of a supportive small business and live-work environment.

As of 2009, the district had already achieved success with the renovation of 91 properties and development of four new infill projects. Progress has continued since that time, with the addition of new residential opportunities and further reduction in storefront vacancy. The most notable change is the conversion of a former train depot and later an adjacent vegetable processing facility into the Titletown Brewery, restaurant, tap room and event center.

Over its entire tenure, the district has had a net gain of 171 new businesses employing more than 1,600 individuals and attracted just shy of $69 million in private investment to improve 167 buildings. With 45 statewide awards, the district is the ‘winningest’ community in the state, and is well-known for innovative adaptive reuse projects and regionally significant marketing and event initiatives bringing thousands to shop, dine and stroll during annual events such as the Winter Wine Walk and Wednesday and Saturday Farmers’ Markets.

Beloit – 2011 GAMSA

Another one of Wisconsin’s inaugural Main Street communities, Beloit, has sustained commitment to downtown progress for more than two and a half decades. A former factory town blessed with the presence of a river and downtown campus (Beloit College), Beloit has channeled the passion of its residents into a successful re-imagined community on the riverfront. As with all of the GAMSA winners, Downtown Beloit has established strong local partnerships. Housed together with the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation, Visit Beloit and the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, the organization has generated regional support for its numerous public art initiatives and innovative incentives strategies, which, in turn have resulted in quality renovations and numerous small business success stories.

Moving from 19 percent vacancy in 1988 to 7 percent in 2011 and a waiting list of prospective businesses in 2015, Beloit is a downtown success story by any measure. Community pride led directly to the successful community-initiated development project, which created the Beloit Inn, a luxury downtown hotel project. Other community-driven initiatives and partnerships include the conversion of the former Woolworth’s into a local foods grocery, creation of a Fine Arts Incubator and selection of a downtown location for the Beloit College bookstore. Cumulative private investments of $70 million have created appealing spaces for entrepreneurs, tech companies and civic organizations alike, generating a 192 percent increase in property values over the past 20 years and rehabilitating more than 286 buildings. The adaptive reuse of the 750,000-square-foot former Ironworks building, begun in 2014, is the next phase of this activity. Already home to numerous software and technology-based firms, the building is also slated to become home to the regional YMCA, with a proposed pedestrian bridge across the Rock River providing additional connectivity.

Moving forward, the organization continues to focus on residential development, including upper floor conversion and infill units designed to meet the needs of a growing workforce and baby boomer market; recruitment of additional restaurants to complement a growing food cluster; and expansion of an already active public art scene. The Downtown Beloit Association is responsible for more than 40 days of events each year, including an award-winning farmers’ market and month-long winter holiday celebration.


On Broadway, Green Bay – 2009 GAMSA

The Broadway District sits on the west bank of the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As a riverfront location, the area has long been a center of commerce, whether for the fur trade, lumber, paper, or, today, as a hive for small businesses and entrepreneurs. However, this transition was not without difficulty, as the 1980s witnessed the district as a high-crime area best defined by the level of disrepair and vacancy in the corridor. In 1995, a group of persistent local merchants, neighbors and community leaders launched a Main Street organization to reclaim the street. Some early triumphs included a new streetscape, a partnership with local police, and creation of a supportive small business and live-work environment.

As of 2009, the district had already achieved success with the renovation of 91 properties and development of four new infill projects. Progress has continued since that time, with the addition of new residential opportunities and further reduction in storefront vacancy. The most notable change is the conversion of a former train depot and later an adjacent vegetable processing facility into the Titletown Brewery, restaurant, tap room and event center.

Over its entire tenure, the district has had a net gain of 171 new businesses employing more than 1,600 individuals and attracted just shy of $69 million in private investment to improve 167 buildings. With 45 statewide awards, the district is the ‘winningest’ community in the state, and is well-known for innovative adaptive reuse projects and regionally significant marketing and event initiatives bringing thousands to shop, dine and stroll during annual events such as the Winter Wine Walk and Wednesday and Saturday Farmers’ Markets.

Fond du Lac – 2015 One to Watch

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Fond du Lac, the youngest award-winning district at 11 years old, has moved quickly to attract $93 million in private investment to the district. These funds went towards improvements to 158 buildings and adding 133 additional housing units, with more on the way. Above all, the organization has been effective in leveraging local partners to create a comprehensive set of funding programs to meet the needs of property owners, developers and businesses in the district. As a result, targeted programs administered by Downtown Fond du Lac include the Building Improvement Grant and the Retail Incentive Fund. This same commitment to partnership raised $15 million for the burgeoning Arts and Entertainment District, which helped establish the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts, Danlann Artist Townhomes and Art Gallery, and the successful conversion of two former churches into a restaurant, offices and senior housing.

The strength of these partnerships has resulted in strong public investment in downtown, including the creation of expanded public wifi services, new sidewalks and a 1.8-mile urban bike loop that connects downtown to recreational trails. This commitment to creating a 24/7 district was compelling to Marian University, which opened a downtown Fond du Lac campus in 2014, and Agnesian Healthcare, which expanded into downtown with 160 jobs. Downtown employees and community members alike benefit from multiple events, including cluster-based promotions such as The Wedding Collection, catering to would-be brides, as well as unique cultural gatherings such as the annual Fondue Fest, which attracts 20,000 for a family-friendly (and Guinness Book-worthy) food festival.

It is obvious from these examples that given sufficient community support and engagement, anything is possible. In fact, it is the unique and varied results of this community vision that give form to greatness. We at Wisconsin Main Street look forward to many more local success stories in the years to come. If any of these stories inspired you, we encourage you to take the time to make a detour to experience them for yourself during your visit. In fact, many of these communities will be featured in mobile workshops as part of the 2016 Main Street Now Conference, and we invite you to take advantage of the opportunity for a behind the scenes look at the places, the projects and the people that made it all possible. 



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