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After a historic paper mill in downtown Neenah closed in 2006, the 16-acre site was in danger of becoming an eyesore that lowered property values and hindered economic development.

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Beloit, another of Wisconsin’s inaugural Main Street communities, 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 successfully reimagined community on the riverfront. As with all Great American Main Street Award 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 incentive 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 then to 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 a former Woolworth store into a local foods grocery, creation of the Beloit 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, leading to a 192 percent increase in property values over the past 20 years and rehabilitation of 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.

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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 in downtown Sheboygan Falls had been renovated, and many stood vacant. However, the actual push for downtown revitalization had begun nearly 15 years earlier, when a few passionate individuals formed a Sheboygan Falls historic preservation group out of the 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 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 toward a revolving loan pool for other downtown property owners. Early activities also set the stage for community-oriented and family-friendly events such as the Ducktona 500, which has grown to attract 8,000 annual attendees. Today, Sheboygan Falls is one of Wisconsin’s successful Chamber-Main Street organizations, a 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.

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Chippewa Falls Main Street was established in 1989, just one year after the formation of the statewide program. Chippewa Falls' Main Street Program has always been known for its abundance of dedicated volunteers and an engaged business community, and is no stranger to publicity. In addition to receiving the Great American Main Street Awards, 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 effort, with multiple staff and elected officials serving on the organization’s board and committees. Together, the community and the Main Street organization 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 project to restore the waterfront, starting with a new visitors’ 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. During its 26-year tenure, the program has seen $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 applied to everything from logos to collateral and streetscape elements.

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