Downtown Heroes

Downtown Heroes

The behind-the-scenes volunteers who use their powers to make their downtown a better place

By Lee Marie Reinsch

If you’re applying for the superhero job, it might help to wear your best tights and cape to the interview. Along with “team leader,” your resume probably needs to include things like “ability to take the initiative and rescue damsels and small kittens in danger.” Talents like zipping through the air faster than a speeding bullet, rappelling down gossamer arachnid-spit threads and deflecting gunfire by crossing bracelet-clad wrists might even get you a second interview.

But if you want to be a “Downtown Hero,” you have to be willing to work harder than anyone Marvel can conjure up. Since you own your own business, there’s no downtown-hero HR department to apply to, no drug-screening and nobody to tell you when to stop working, because you’re likely on the job 24/7. You need to lead by example. You need to make your downtown a better place for everyone. You need to be quick with solutions, willing to work quietly behind the scenes while local mucky-mucks get the credit, and you need to figure out how to draw Joe and Jane Citizen out of their big-box-store fugues.

And, oh yeah. Tights are optional.

Oshkosh’s Batman

Take Chanda Anderson, for example. If Oshkosh equals Gotham City, then Chanda Anderson equals Batman.

“He’s always trying to make Gotham City a better place to live, and I’m trying to make Oshkosh a better place to live,” said Anderson, owner of Caramel Crisp & Café located in the Shops at City Center in Oshkosh.

“I love Oshkosh,  it’s got so much to offer, and people just don’t take advantage of  it. I want it to be a better place for our kids.”

Although Oshkosh residents probably won’t find Anderson swooping across the night sky with wings outstretched, they may find her stretching her wings in other ways. In addition to playing a key role in downtown business improvement district seasonal events – from garnering live reindeer for the downtown holiday parade celebration to organizing entertainers for the farmers markets – Anderson has taken it upon herself to invent a brand-new winter celebration. Slated for February, Heart of the Winter will highlight area food specialties and feature ice sculpture, chocolate artists, dogsled racing, ice bowling, downtown sales and music. Proceeds will go to Day to Day Warming Shelter, which provides temporary emergency shelter for the homeless.

Cassie Cook took over in August as manager of the downtown Oshkosh BID. In such a short time, one merchant has played a big role in helping Cook get her feet wet.

“Chanda has been one of the most helpful people in the downtown area, as far as getting contacts for me and getting more people involved in the downtown,” Cook said. “She really wants the downtown overall to succeed and thrive.”

Cook describes Anderson as a go-getter.

“If I have a question, I go to her and she will either have an answer or find an answer for me,” Cook said.


Fond du Lac’s Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon uses his wits and agility to battle tyrants like Ming the Merciless and his minions in places like Planet Mongo. Fond du Lac’s Sam Meyer could use a little of Flash Gordon’s speed and adroitness to zip from one meeting to the next.

Besides being owner of a downtown Fond du Lac business and two historic properties, Meyer is president of the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership board of directors. He serves on its design committee, and he’s also recently served on the Fond du Lac City Council as well as on the Fond du Lac County Board of Supervisors. Plus he’s a husband and father of four.

“It’s amazing how he gets it all done,” said Amy Hansen, director of the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership.

Meyer bought and renovated the former Eric’s Pastry Shoppe around 10 years ago, turning the bakery into his office space and massively upgrading the second-story living space into a bed and breakfast, which Meyer closed in November due to lack of time. It’s now an upscale luxury apartment.

He did the same refurbishing a few doors down with the former Graebel’s shoe store, now leased out to The Knitting Room. Both projects earned him the Wisconsin Main Street Design of the Year and awards from the state Department of Commerce.

“The materials he uses are the best, and the designers he uses are the best,” Hansen said, adding that he puts more into the renovations than he gets out of it. “He’s not getting rich off this, that is for sure,” she said.

Meyer had new custom-made arched-top windows made for the former Graebel’s site, restored the original brick facades, and commissioned Amish craftsmen to build the cabinetry for the residential space above.

“I am very sensitive to being true to the historic look of the buildings I have,” Meyer said. “It cost a few nickels, but I am here for the long term – I am not going to flip these properties. Hopefully this will foster something in others.”

Meyer said considering the down economy, downtown Fond du Lac has held its own pretty well. “We have strong merchants who have been here a long time, and we do what we can to sustain that,” he said.

The city has been a good partner with the downtown by putting in upgraded sidewalks, decorative streetlights and cross walks, Meyer said.

“If we can all pitch in and help the downtown, it helps us all,” he said.


Neenah’s Casper the Friendly Ghost

Ghosts are generally thought of as scary, except when it comes to Casper the Friendly Ghost. Even though his relatives push him to be menacing, he stays true to his heart and plays nice.

“I don’t need to be bigger than other people,” said Jim Reiser, owner of the downtown Neenah Dairy Queen and former president of the Neenah business improvement district board of directors. “My wife tells me I’m more lovable when I’m vulnerable.”

Reiser didn’t always get personally involved in his community. Until just a few years ago, it was a lot easier to write a check than to volunteer his time. “My time is expensive to me, and I guard it,” he said.

But part of his staying out of downtown politics had to do with his own insecurities, he said.

“I finally realized I was OK,” he said. “Knowing who I am changed me, I figured out how I want to live my life. I realized I couldn’t keep buying my way into the community (by simply writing out a check),” he said. “The community helped build me, and I need to help build the community.”

He just ended his seventh year as president of the Neenah BID board, and although he doesn’t think of himself as a leader, the rest of the community does, according to Amy Barker, director of Future Neenah.

“He exemplifies the gold standard,” Barker said. “He goes above and beyond with customer service, in keeping the exterior of his building clean, through his friendly and non-abrasive manner.”

Barker describes Reiser as a collaborator who is easy to deal with.

“When issues come up at board meetings, he takes them to heart and talks through an issue and says ‘Here’s my perspective,’” rather than talking someone down. “He’s very humble and down to earth, and probably doesn’t view himself as a mover and a shaker, but the other businesses in the area really look to him as a good example of how to promote his neighbor as well as himself,” Barker said.

As to why he is the way he is, Reiser credits his spirituality. “Part of why I am the way I am is where I want to go.”


Appleton’s Captain America

If rundown rental properties equals the Axis powers of World War II, then Mark Behnke equals Captain America.

Captain America was a scrawny kid named Steve who enlisted in the U.S. Army and who, upon being too puny to pass endurance tests, undergoes a scientist’s experiment to create the new super-soldier. Transformed into a superhero, Captain America fights against the Axis forces.

Like that scrawny kid, Mark Behnke is a behind-the-scenes, under-the-radar kind of guy. So it wasn’t too surprising that he played shy when it came to comparing himself to any superhero. Appleton Downtown Inc. director Jennifer Stephany did it for him:

“Small business is the heart of the American economy and Mark helps support the American dream,”
said Stephany.

Behnke owns three bars in downtown Appleton – Bazil’s Pub, Olde Town Tavern and Firefly Lounge, which is transforming in 2012 – as well as 15 other downtown buildings, most of them around a century old, including the one housing Starbucks.

Stephany cites Behnke’s meticulous upkeep of his properties, his involvement with the BID board, and his informal mentorship of new business owners as reasons he’s worthy being called a downtown hero.

“Mark will take a building and renovate the upstairs to living quarters, and they are some of the nicest properties in the downtown,” Stephany said. “They are always kept up well, the maintenance is always kept up, and that is a great example of the quality of landlord Mark Behnke is.”

His low turnover rate in tenants and employees and the number of long-term (decade-plus) employees further supports that, she said.

“I fix things as they need it. I tell my tenants to call me right away if they have problems with something like a boiler or the roof,” Behnke said. “If you don’t take care of it right away, it costs more in the end. We just spent $50,000 last year on new roofs for two buildings. If you keep (properties) up and keep your tenants happy, then your tenants stay. If your tenants are always calling you because they have problems, they don’t stay. They look around for something better.”

Behnke gives his time and support to summer musical acts, Oktoberfest and the annual car show. “If they need something, they know that whatever they need, all they have to do is call,” he said.

Despite the many demands pulling him in all directions, Behnke always makes time to cook lunch at Bazil’s.

“I enjoy it. We cook right in front of people, and I have customers that have been coming in here for 20 years and that’s my way of being in touch with them. They come in here every day.”


Green Bay’s Nobel Prizewinner

When it comes to superheroes, Steve Schneider throws a wrench into the mix.

“I’m not big on Batman or Catgirl,” Schneider said. “I think there are non-cartoon superheroes, like Dr. Norman Borlaug, who should be more of a model than some fictitious character.”

Dr. Who?

Nope, not the time-traveling British doctor who saves the universe and rights wrongs, but Dr. Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work as a plant geneticist. Borlaug developed new strains of disease-resistant wheat to feed hungry populations in India, Pakistan and the Middle East. He’s credited with saving more lives than any other human being, according to the Nobel organization.

It’s not a goal everyone can achieve, but then again, neither is zapping evil-doers with lightning bolts.

Schneider probably wouldn’t deign to compare himself to the 20th-century loaves-and-fishes icon, but he and the late Borlaug do have a few things in common. Like Borlaug, Schneider comes from a small town (Cresco, Ia., and Kellnersville, Wis., respectively), and like Borlaug, Schneider has the gift of transforming what could be into what is.

Take the nine-story, 97-year-old Bellin Building in downtown Green Bay, for example. A few years ago, it was tired, half-empty and its future nebulous.

“I thought it should be preserved,” said Schneider, who had an office there with one of his telecommunications companies. “Unfortunately, if old buildings aren’t relevant, they tend to get torn down or fall by the wayside.”

He lined up investors and bought it and the Zuelke Building in downtown Appleton from the previous owners. “Part of the plan for making (the Bellin Building) relevant again was attracting the right types of tenants, filling it up, and making it vibrant. People want to be where other people are. It’s 90 percent of the way there.”

Over the last five years, they put $1.2 million worth of renovations into the first and second stories alone, restoring old terrazzo floors, cleaning the exterior and resurrecting interior pillars. Two anchors now are The Daily Buzz coffee shop and the Black & Tan Grille. Schneider and his partners are working on opening one of the ground-floor suites as a piano/jazz bar. A number of private offices are leased out, and a banquet hall and private dining area are available for private groups.

“He’s very generous with his time and with sharing his entrepreneurial spirit,” said Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay, Inc.

Mirkes brought a class of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College business students downtown for a program spotlighting downtown business successes. Schneider was an evening guest speaker, but he didn’t give a generic 20-minute speech.

“He gave us a tour of the building, put us up in the best meeting room, and during the break, he brought in loads and loads of the best appetizers from the Black & Tan,” Mirkes said. “We went over the (allotted) time, but he didn’t mind. The students loved it. These were probably the best appetizers the students had ever tasted. He treated them like royalty.”

Schneider also showed his true colors when Mirkes’ group wanted to launch the first-ever Fridays on the Fox program on the city’s new CityDeck on the Fox River.

“We knew it would be a hit, with the food and the view, and we knew people would come from all over,” Mirkes said. “But sometimes, when all you have is the vision, it’s tough to find someone to believe in it, and he made it possible.

“He provided the lead sponsorship to make the first season a success,” Mirkes said. But he didn’t make demands or try to micromanage the event. “He just said ‘Yep, we’ll stand behind you.’”

“It was almost like someone who wants to give young entrepreneurs a successful start with seed capital,” Mirkes said. “That is the way he made us feel, like a non-profit organization that is activating the downtown.”

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.