It’s always great to receive recognition from your peers, but the downtown leaders who attended Friday night’s Wisconsin Main Street awards ceremony say the event was about much more than just walking away with a plaque.

WEDC's Darrin Wasniewski speaks at the 2017 Wisconsin Main Street Awards.

WEDC’s Darrin Wasniewski speaks at the 2017 Wisconsin Main Street Awards.

The ceremony, held at the Hotel Mead in Wisconsin Rapids, honored dozens of Main Street communities, staff members and volunteers for their efforts in promoting and marketing downtowns. Beyond that, however, the gathering also was an opportunity for Main Street directors from every region of the state to network with one another and to bring back some new ideas to use in their communities.

“It’s terrific to see what all the different communities in Wisconsin are doing, and it’s fun to listen to all the different ideas out here,” said Amy Hansen, executive director of the Downtown Fond Du Lac Partnership, who was honored Friday for her 10th year as a Main Street director. “And really, I take home a lot of from this.  I steal a lot of ideas.”

Elizabeth Field, executive director of the Wausau River District Inc., joked that there was a lot of R&D taking place at the event – “rip off and duplicate.”

“It’s really wonderful to get together with the Main Street directors at this ceremony,” Field added. “It really is a source of inspiration. We get to see each other; it’s kind of like a group therapy session. We get to be inspired by each other and see the different projects that the communities have done.”

The 26th awards ceremony was hosted by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), which oversees the Wisconsin Main Street Program. Darrin Wasniewski, WEDC’s downtown development program manager, agreed that a key aspect of the evening was allowing downtown advocates from around the state a chance to share their best ideas for boosting their business districts.

“An event like is important because it gets all the directors together for networking and it builds relationships among all the programs,” Wasniewski said. “It also highlights all the great projects that are going on in our downtowns throughout the year. It sparks new ideas for other communities to take back, and even if that idea may not directly fit with their downtown, it gives them inspiration for something they can modify to make it work for them.”

Added Roger Russove, executive director of Two Rivers Main Street: “We share ideas, and discuss successes and failures, so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes and can get to the successes faster.”

Wisconsin’s Main Street program has played a critical role in revitalizing downtowns since its inception in 1987. Over those three decades, Wisconsin Main Street community projects have resulted in the creation of more than 2,600 new businesses and more than 13,000 net new jobs. In addition, more than $1.6 billion in public and private investment has occurred in Main Street communities.

And when a city’s downtown is thriving, that success permeates throughout the entire community, the local Main Street directors say.

“Downtowns are seeing a renaissance right now,” Russove said. “We saw a little bit of decay in traditional downtowns a few years back, and now we’re seeing that come back. It’s very important for a community to have a place, and in a lot of communities downtown is that place. It’s the center of the community where people gather, see friends and go for something to do.”

“It is so important that we’re working on the downtowns of Wisconsin, because that’s the heart of every community,” Hansen explained. “Improving the downtowns shows our community pride, that we care about the communities we live in, and that we want people to visit, live and work in our communities. If there’s not a targeted effort, it will fall by the wayside.”

Wasniewski described downtowns as a “a snapshot into the lifeblood of the community.”

“Picture yourself driving through a downtown and you can really get a feel for what a community is like by how vibrant and active the downtown is,” he said. “Our focus on our downtowns helps keeps that vibrancy and vitality that is so important to drawing people downtown.”

View a complete list of Wisconsin Main Street Awards winners.