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Recognizing revitalization success

April 29, 2024
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Image of plaques for the 2023 Main Street Awards

Each year at the Wisconsin Main Street Awards, we recognize individuals, businesses, and community leaders who have made an impact in their downtown districts through their dedication of time, talent, and investment. In communities large and small, these individual contributions have collectively resulted in a visible and measurable impact. Examples of such impacts recognized at this year’s awards ranged from a community event organized for less than $500 that attracted 1,500 celebrants to Monroe’s courthouse square on a Sunday evening to the $40 million transformation of a decades-vacant property into a destination hotel and event space in downtown Racine. The 33rd Annual Wisconsin Main Street Awards event, held on April 19, recognized these and numerous other success stories from around the state, many of which are also featured in this month’s newsletter.

The 29 projects and initiatives recognized at this year’s awards highlighted the diverse array of activities communities undertake as a part of downtown revitalization, reflecting the varied sizes and characters of the Main Street and Connect Communities programs around the state. Whether big or small, these impressive results provide examples and lessons that can be translated into initiatives in other communities. Inspirational projects featured here are grouped according to the Four Points of Main Street (Design, Organization, Promotion, and Economic Vitality) for ease of reference, though the impact of each extends beyond a single category such as improved aesthetics or a single successful event.

Image of Driftless yoga before remodeling and after.

Even small investments can make a big visual impact on a district, like this tasteful façade renovation in Platteville.

Inspirational design

A visually pleasing district welcomes visitors, encourages pedestrians to explore, and allows customers to linger longer (and spend more). The first impression a district presents has a significant impact on whether, and how often, visitors will frequent the district. A district’s visuals rely on attention to detail and investment in both public and private spaces, which together create the impression of a well-cared-for and vibrant space. This year’s winners included examples of public, private, and joint initiatives to improve their downtowns.

20 E Main Street, Platteville

Sometimes, small changes can add up to large impacts. Small investments in updating and enhancing the façades of individual storefronts can create an interesting and engaging pedestrian environment. Businesses that invest in a fresh coat of paint and new signage demonstrate care for the community and cause passersby to take notice and pay a visit. For only $6,000, Driftless Fitness and Yoga was able to restore and revitalize its historic wood façade, working with the Historic Preservation Commission to select impactful and appropriate colors and materials to honor the origins of their small piece of history.

Image of four women taking a selfie in downtown Racine.

Portable photo ops encouraged visitors to downtown Racine to capture and share the things they love about their community.

Love, Racine

The Love, Racine project is an interactive public art and social media campaign designed to encourage residents and visitors alike to share things they love about their downtown. More than a dozen I Heart Racine sculptures designed by artists were installed throughout the district, while a series of corresponding social media posts and photo frame props encouraged more than 50 individuals to write love notes about their favorite aspects of downtown Racine. This surge of positive messaging helps to counter online negativity and shape perceptions of downtown.

Coming Home, Osceola

This charming gift shop took advantage of the Main Street Bounceback Grant Program to expand the shop, adding furniture and other products to complement the existing gift and home goods offerings. To market the expansion, the Coming Home team invested in interior merchandising to draw the customer throughout the shop. With a fairly minimal investment, the strategic use of seasonal rotating displays, and a focused social media campaign, the shop was able to increase customer transactions by 12% and sales by nearly 6% year over year.

 

Image of Green Bay dog park.

The design of public spaces is also important to the overall perception of a community. This appealing dog park is not only attractive, but is a visible sign of a district that is welcoming of residents and their furry friends.

Vital Essentials Dog Park, On Broadway, Green Bay

As downtown residential populations increase, the demand for pet-friendly amenities has also grown. This is true for the On Broadway District in Green Bay, which added more than 150 new residential units in the past decade. Meeting this demand has involved a multi-year campaign, beginning with a pop-up dog park in 2019 and several years of fundraising. Only the second dog park in the City of Green Bay, the Vital Essentials Dog Park is located on what had been a city-owned vacant lot for decades. The final project, which involves a long-term lease on the lot from the Green Bay Redevelopment Authority, cost nearly $25,000 to complete, with most of the cost going toward fencing. With its numerous benches and at least six murals visible from the space, the park is a pleasant place to visit for residents and their furry friends.

Image of Cheese Drop in Monroe, WI.

Iconic events such as Monroe’s NYE Cheese Drop celebrate a unique aspect of a community build community among residents and attract visitors looking to share in the experience.

Impactful promotions

Events are more than just an excuse to have a good time. A well-planned and executed event can help shape and reinforce the positive perception of the district or drive customers and sales to individual businesses. These three examples illustrate the variety of outcomes that special events and celebrations can have in a district.

New Year’s Eve (NYE) Cheese Drop, Monroe

The NYE Cheese Drop event owes its tremendous success (drawing a crowd of 1,500 to the square on a Sunday night) to its ability to capitalize on the community’s longstanding reputation as the home of all things cheese, and Monroe’s strong sense of community. The event included more than 17 businesses and community groups volunteering time and talent to carry out an evening event with just over a month of planning and a $500 budget. The event, which celebrated New Year’s Eve along with the residents of Switzerland (at 5 p.m. CST), featured several hours of entertainment: fire pits, photo and petting opportunities with cows, cheese sampling, and local talent performances. It culminated with the dropping of a replica block of cheese and a toast with locally made Blumer root beer.

 

 

 

 

An image containing logos from partners of The Port Festival of the Arts

Successful events require partnership. The Port Festival of the Arts recognizes sponsors and partners with this effective ad.

Port Festival of the Arts, Port Washington 

The Port Festival of the Arts heralds the kickoff of the summer season for downtown Port Washington. In the first year of the event, downtown was filled with 7,600 visitors, including 41% of visitors who had traveled more than 50 miles. Attendees enjoyed numerous interactive and family-friendly art and music opportunities, an art fair, and a full day of multicultural song, dance, and musical performances. More than 23 businesses participated, with three-quarters reporting an increase in sales during the event, and the event received more positive feedback from visitors than any other event, in addition to building connections among the organization, the community, and creative arts organizations.

 

 

 

 

Image of poster from Racine's First Fridays.

Racine’s First Fridays event engages businesses throughout the district in its themed programming, encouraging visitors to explore the entire district and experience new businesses.

First Fridays, Racine 

While Port Washington’s festival was designed to help grow the reputation of Port Washington as an arts-friendly community and expand the pool of destination visitors, the First Fridays series was specifically designed to draw foot traffic and customers to downtown regularly, with each event focused on specific demographic groups within the Racine community. The event runs from May through November, with monthly themes—including Cinco de Mayo, ’70s retro, and cozy flannel, among others—reflected in performances, costume contests, and more. With many local bands and a diverse and unique array of performances (last June showcased a BMX show), the event offers a unique experience that is distinct from established music or food festivals. The district-wide events and rotating performances allow plenty of time and opportunity for visitors to shop and dine at up to 40 participating businesses monthly, many of which offer specials or offerings related to that month’s theme.

Excellence in organizational management

Image of Lake Mill’s quarterly newsletter.

Lake Mill’s quarterly newsletter is a love letter to the community, featuring the businesses and events that make the community unique while highlighting ways that individuals can support revitalization efforts.

The often-overlooked downtown program development aspects of creating a cohesive brand identity and fostering community engagement are critical to long-term success. Over time, districts that can attract and engage with large and diverse groups of volunteers and stakeholders experience increased levels of investment, business activity, and advocacy support. This year’s award-winning programs allow community members to directly demonstrate their support for their downtown in a variety of ways.

“North for the 4th,” Tomahawk

Tomahawk has been a summertime destination for generations of Wisconsinites. Tomahawk Main Street has been offering branded “North for the 4th” merchandise for nearly 40 years, with proceeds going to benefit various charitable institutions and causes in the community. Over time, the launch of the annual design has become an event in its own right, creating a sense of anticipation each year, while merchandise sales have become one of the organization’s largest fundraisers. In 2023, the organization honored 40 years of “North for the 4th”with a historic T-shirt display, a trendy “Top Gun”-inspired design, and an expanded wearables line featuring tank tops, T-shirts, and sweatshirts, letting even more families join the “North for the 4th” tradition.

“Love, Lake Mills” 

Lake Mills recently underwent a successful merger between the Chamber of Commerce and its Main Street program, and sought a way to communicate changes and new opportunities effectively with stakeholders and the community at large. From this challenge, the “Love, Lake Mills” newsletter was born. Intended as a love letter to the community, the newsletter is mailed out to all households in the ZIP code on a quarterly basis, highlighting upcoming events and volunteer opportunities as well as featuring multiple local businesses in each issue. The newsletter provides a regular opportunity to engage with all residents and businesses in the community, forging connections and increasing engagement for a minimal expense of $5,000 annually.

Still image from the King Drive Is video

Capturing testimonials is an effective way to connect visitors to a place while capturing the essence of a place. Milwaukee’s King Drive Is video series is a great example of how stories can convey meaning.

Digital marketing campaign, Historic King Drive, Milwaukee

In contrast to the Lake Mills newsletter, King Drive’s newest marketing initiative capitalizes on videos’ ability to capture online users’ attention. Led by the marketing committee and developed by marketing firms Twenty Fifth Hour and Pwr Forward, the video series combines storytelling and visuals to tell the story of King Drive and its businesses, ranging from longstanding to newly opened, building on the established “King Drive Is” brand. With only a $2,000 budget, the group managed to produce three videos, each highlighting multiple businesses and destinations across the district.

 

 

 

Image of a outdoor patio and event space.

Vibrant downtowns include a mix of sustainable businesses and activated properties that meet community needs. The Fharmacy Public House project converted a vacant building and adjacent parking lot into a brewery, patio and event space in downtown Lake Mills.)

Effective initiatives in economic vitality

The economic and psychological impact on a community from the successful redevelopment or revitalization of key properties in a district can be far-reaching. Whether the project generates foot traffic, meets a critical need in the community, or just serves as an indicator that the downtown is a good investment, the projects and businesses recognized in this category have catalytic impacts beyond just the customers and property value generated by a single new business or development. They inspire and encourage other would-be entrepreneurs or downtown property owners to consider similar investments, resulting in a positive feedback loop for downtown activity.

Cool City Brewing, Two Rivers/Fharmacy Public House, Lake Mills

Continuing the advancement of craft brewing as a community- and tourism-building feature of Wisconsin communities, two brewery-related projects were recognized this year. Both projects involved the renovation of existing structures to house brewery and event space, coupled with the installation of attractive outdoor patio spaces that allow for casual gatherings during summer months. The Cool City Brewing project converted a former bank building into an attractive and activated space fronting the newly developed Central Park 365. The business features a coffee shop and restaurant in addition to craft beer, serving as a hub of activity from morning to night. The former bank drive-through is used for coffee and to-go orders, and the business offers dedicated golf cart and bike parking to cater to the growing non-auto traffic. In comparison, the Fharmacy project converted a shuttered pharmacy space into a second downtown location for Lake Mills’ popular Tyranena Brewing Company across the street from the popular Central Park. The new space features a stage for music and both rooftop and street-level patio spaces, allowing it to offer complimentary activities to those already existing at their larger brewing facility in the industrial park.

Image of downtown Elroy, WI in winter.

After over a decade of coordination, Elroy welcomed a new Gundersen St. Joseph clinic, creating a new source of foot traffic at a key downtown intersection.

Gundersen Health Clinic, Elroy 

After more than 15 years of planning and negotiations, Elroy welcomed a new Gundersen St. Joseph Clinic as an anchor for its downtown district. The 9,000-square-foot clinic anchors a key corner downtown, replacing a vacant former auto garage. Not only does the downtown location offer more convenient access to medical care for Elroy residents, but it attracts 500 monthly visitors who can visit adjacent shops and restaurants during their trip. The 12 full-time staff and $4 million in property value also boost the downtown activity. Funding for the project included not only the city and Gundersen St. Joseph, but also a DOA Healthcare Infrastructure grant and contribution from Forward Elroy.

 

 

 

Image of Hotel Verdant in Racine, WI

The restoration of a landmark building is always a highlight of downtown transformation stories. The newly renovated Hotel Verdant in downtown Racine is the perfect example of a new use taking advantage of an iconic location to help shape the future of a community.

Hotel Verdant, Racine 

The historic Zahn’s Department Store building is an iconic landmark in downtown Racine. However, after sitting vacant for four decades, it had become a sign of stagnation rather than a point of pride. Finally, with significant public and private effort, Dominion Properties purchased and renovated the 40,000-square-foot property into a LEED Gold-certified boutique hotel with a  rooftop restaurant and bar. The $42 million price tag included a mix of grants, tax credits, and public support from the city and the county, including $3 million in Tax Increment Financing assistance and an additional $7 million second mortgage. This collaborative effort has restored the showpiece property located on the iconic Monument Square, reactivating the center of the district.

New this year, a reference to award-winning projects was developed that includes more of the “how-to” elements of individual projects recognized at the event. The guide features critical information on funding sources, companies, and individuals involved in completing the project and the timing, partnerships, and logistics that were critical to its success. This tool aims to make it easier for communities with similar goals to adapt and implement proven strategies locally. We look forward to working with many Wisconsin downtowns. Link to Awards Summary Booklet – this booklet will be done this week, we need to find a place for it to live on the website as a link.

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