Downtown Heroes

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Pillars of respective downtown communities across northeast Wisconsin go above and beyond to make central city districts thrive

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

It’s easy to get depressed about the state of Downtown America, especially when you’re out and about on a Saturday in the thriving, buzzing vicinity of a certain Fox Cities shopping mecca.

But alas! Rest assured downtown isn’t dead. There are individuals who, one by one, are doing their best to revive downtowns in cities along the Interstate 41 corridor. These quiet pillars are quietly building up their main streets with their many acts, large and small, that form the scaffolding of our downtown culture.

Neenah’s Umer Sheikh

Umer Sheikh of Investment Creations LLC of Neenah falls into the second category. When others saw orange shag carpeting and hideous foam drop-ceilings inside the 1909 neoclassical Equitable Reserve Association building, he saw its intricate woodwork restored and its floors buffed to a shine. Sheikh envisioned viable businesses inside, like a microbrewery, salon, photo studio, marketing and IT firms. Now they’re reality.

But a few years ago, the mood was a bit darker.

“As a community we were like ‘What are we going to do with this building?’ because it was going to take an extensive amount of updating to make it more desirable as an office space,” said Amy Barker, executive director of Future Neenah. “It was three stories full of a lot of neat features but buried features … You could see bits and pieces of old woodwork, like mahogany, but it needed a big investment. And no one from an investor standpoint was crazy enough to take that on until Investment Creations came along.”

Sheikh and his wife, Trish Lison Sheikh, saw opportunity, a chance to preserve a building designed by renowned architect William Waters and keep downtown Neenah together.

“Old buildings have so much character, so much history,” Sheikh said. “When you begin to peel off the layers and give them a little bit of love, you see how they become just beautiful pieces of art.”

Renovations in the three-story, 18,000-sq. ft. former ERA building involved gutting it, installing new heating and electrical systems, elevator and sprinkler system, restoring woodwork and returning the third floor to a ballroom – among other projects.

Lion’s Tail Brewing Co., Fabric hair salon, Dynamic Insights, Swoonbeam Photography and Excelion make their home there now, and The Ballroom at The Reserve comprises the third floor.

Sheikh called the renovation a labor of love. He spent several years living in Wales, U.K., in an 18th-century row house and said that may have sparked his interest in old buildings.

“Outside of the U.S., a 100-year-old building is not old at all,” he said. “Over time I realized this was really what I was passionate about.”

It’s not his first experience with historic buildings. The Marketplace building, 124 W. Wisconsin Ave. in downtown Neenah, is among his restoration portfolio. It had been in foreclosure when Investment Creations came along.

“He just thought it was really important to have the middle of our downtown really functional and vibrant, and he had a vision for that building,” Barker said.

That vision included opening Timshel Cafe, which they operate, on the first floor. Red Door Mercantile, Broken Tree Pizza and Thomas A. Lyons Fine Books are among the tenants, and Future Neenah holds an indoor farmers market there in colder months.

The 1893 brick building across the street at 131 W. Wisconsin Ave. is another of Investment Creations’ (re)creations.

“He doesn’t shy away from keeping our downtown properties looking good, and he’s found a passion for continuing to invest in the community where he’s raising his children,” Barker said. “There’s definitely some heartfelt investment and risk-taking involved.”

Sheikh volunteers as vice president of the Neenah business improvement district board of directors and serves on its retention and recruitment committee. “He’s not only invested (in downtown) and busy with his own investments, he’s willing to help our downtown be a better place by serving as a volunteer … and he also works to help out his neighbors,” Barker said.

“Umer keeps in touch with the other property owners to know what somebody else might have open for space, and he’s really careful to ensure that what he accepts to come in for a new business isn’t running in competition” with nearby businesses, Barker said. “It’s not just about filling a space. He’s making sure it’s a good fit, and sometimes the best fit for that business isn’t his property, it’s his neighbor’s property.”

Barker said Sheikh’s also very humble and quiet about what he does. He still shies away from the spotlight, preferring to shine the light on his tenants.

“Life becomes a lot easier when you work with good people,” Sheikh said. “There are a lot of good people around here.”

Tracy Mathweg, Fond du Lac

Vibrant. Positive. Goofy. The biggest cheerleader for downtown Fond du Lac.

That’s how people describe Tracy Mathweg, owner of Lillians of Fond du Lac women’s clothing boutique, 27 S. Main St.

“She’s one of our strongest ambassadors,” said Amy Hansen, executive director of Downtown Fond du Lac. “Not only is she always trying to be innovative in her marketing ideas, but she’s constantly trying to be innovative for other businesses.”

Mathweg loves drumming up promotional ideas for other business owners even if they don’t benefit her, Hansen said.

“Even if it’s just an idea that she thinks will help this business owner succeed, she’s always willing to shoot around ideas and do any kind of cross promotion.”

She never hesitates to post events and promotions of other downtown businesses on her Facebook page if they’re having an open house or job openings or are doing something special for a downtown event, Hansen said. “Her passion is for downtown, but she’s also very passionate about Fond du Lac.”

It was actually her traveling husband who jump-started Mathweg’s involvement in downtown Fond du Lac.

“Instead of sitting home by myself and saying ‘Woe is me,’ that’s when I personally got out and explored small businesses and got involved in little groups – that’s when I really started to fall in love with Fond du Lac,” Mathweg said. “I think sometimes people wait for opportunity to knock on their door instead of just getting out there and getting involved. When you get out there and enjoy your community and help out, it makes it a good place for everyone to be.”

Social media is good for many things, but it’s also made it easy to sit back and complain, Mathweg said. That fuels her even more, spurring her to get out and highlight good things happening in Fond du Lac. So she instigated Positively Fond du Lac, a Facebook page where only positive comments about Fond du Lac are allowed. It started three years ago and has 1,700 connections.

“My personal motto is you have to love where you live,” she said. “If we want people to visit Fond du Lac, we have to show them how much we like it here.”

Mathweg did an informal “Downtown Day” to let people know what downtown stores have to offer.

“Small businesses struggle because many people just drive quickly by and people don’t know what’s in the shops,” Hansen said. “Our mission for the day was for people who weren’t all that familiar with (downtown).”

Even before she became a downtown business owner, she was “a big advocate” for shopping locally, Mathweg said.

“I think all of our local stores are what make our community unique,” she said.

Personal relationships make it special, she said. “You can go to big-box stores for everything, but you don’t get to have the fun that you do at a small business, talking to the owners and getting the personalized service.”

She stays positive in hopes that it’ll be contagious. “I just have learned over life that I like to lead by example,” she said. “Hopefully people will catch on to my positiveness and my energy. For the most part, it flows over and gets people excited.”

Oshkosh’s Sandy Prunty

The owner of AtomicKatz and AtomicKatztoo at 17 Waugoo Ave. is invaluable to downtown Oshkosh’s business improvement district.

“Sandy, ever since I started here, was a huge help for anything I needed,” said Cassie Daniels, manager for the Downtown Oshkosh Business Improvement District for the past five years.

Prunty serves on the BID board and its marketing consortium, which is a small group of business owners and downtown activists that meets monthly to brainstorm ideas, events and promotions for the downtown. She’s on the holiday committee and the Chalk Walk committee, which are two of the downtown’s most instrumental events of the year. And she helps out whenever and however she can.

“She’s always volunteering for stuff I need her to do,” Daniels said. “We have a farmer’s market booth, which she signs up for, and she helps with chamber expos and anything I need help with.”

“I’m on almost every committee there is for an event because I have the time to volunteer and do,” Prunty said.

Prunty even helps out with promotions she’s not familiar with, like a recent Downtown Oshkosh Pokemon Go event.

“She was willing to do anything (to help out) even though she didn’t know anything about it. Overall, she just wants what’s good for downtown,” Daniels said. “She’s always pushing for downtown.”

AtomicKatz and AtomicKatztoo sell vintage clothing and mid-century modern furniture. It’s a business Prunty fell into by doing what that old adage advises: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

She worked as a rehabilitation nurse and later as director of a five-state area for HCR Manor Care, a career that had her doing a lot of traveling. For fun, she antiqued.

Prunty’s foray into vintage happened in the late 1990s when she and friend (now business partner) Debra Toman were buying and selling at antique malls and flea markets.

In 2001, she opened AtomicKatz vintage clothing store after buying a downtown Oshkosh storefront just a few days after she saw it. Like Umer Sheikh of Investment Creations, she had a vision of what downtown Oshkosh could be.

“Oshkosh has become very exciting, dynamic and energized, but at that point it was kind of going into the pre-butterfly stage,” she said. “They still had lots of things downtown, but there were a lot of empty businesses and empty storefronts.”

One Christmas season she organized artists, got a grant and filled 10 empty downtown windows with scenes from The Nutcracker. Downtown Oshkosh has come a long way since then.

“At this moment we have one retail spot open in downtown Oshkosh – that’s how far we’ve come,” Prunty said.

Daniels describes Prunty as outgoing and bubbly.

“She really has a passion for downtown, and she’s one of those business owners who’s not just for the good of her own business, but the good of others as well,” Daniels said.

The Oshkosh BID board hosts holiday promotions, monthly art gallery walks, the Christmastime Whoville Holiday and a Don’t be a Grinch-themed gift donation program for those in need.

“The neat thing about the downtown business people is we’re always looking out for the next person,” Prunty said. They promote each other’s events, even when it’s of no obvious benefit to themselves.

“Like for the comic book store, everybody plugs (Free) Comic Book Day, and that’s just a real big thing,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll have some silly thing in your store to promote somebody else’s business – I think that’s a camaraderie that’s really unique to the city of Oshkosh.”

Business owners take care of each other, she said. “We’re all like ‘If you can’t find it here in my store, I’m going to give you a map and show you six other stores that might have it,’” and recommending other downtown businesses to visit.

It hasn’t all been easy, though. “We had one whole calendar year where the main street was closed (for construction). We had no traffic down our entire Main Street.”

She said only one store closing could be attributed to the street closure.

“That says monumental things about our downtown,” Prunty said.

Fox Cities’ Randy Stadtmueller

If something’s cool enough, it’s worth saving.

It’s fair to say that spectre of abandoned paper mills and factories – with their accompanying contamination and brownfield sites – hogging up prime real estate along the Fox River would, in most cases, be awful.

But forward-thinking and community-minded developer Randy Stadtmueller of Stadtmueller & Associates of Kimberly wasn’t about to sit back and do nothing about it.

Most of his industrial-site revamp projects are with buildings over 100 years old, and many but not all are on the Fox River.

He and his firm are behind the renovation and restoration of large and abandoned manufacturing facilities on the riverfront. The 1878 cream brick Atlas Paper Mill, 425 W. Water Street, Appleton – home of Atlas Coffee Mill – is among his many projects. That endeavor involved restoring the Vulcan power plant, now Fratellos Riverfront Restaurant, and Vulcan Heritage Park. A later renovation transformed the paper mill into the Paper Discovery Center museum, which offers programs and workshops for schools and the public.

The 116-year-old Historic Herzinger Market Building, 307 N. Commercial St., and the Jersild Knitting Mill, 333 N. Commercial St. – both in Neenah – are other Stadtmueller undertakings.

“Old buildings are the ones that are on the river, they’re old manufacturing buildings, and generally speaking, they’re interesting buildings,” he said.

The former 82,000-sq. ft. Eagle Mill in Kaukauna, now known as Grand Kakalin, is another. It’s home to the Kaukauna Public Library and corporate headquarters for Expera Specialty Solutions.

“The Grand Kakalin building in Kaukauna was done under the historic tax credit program so the windows are as close to the windows that were originally in that building as we could make it,” Stadtmueller said. “Shop drawings of every single window in that building had to conform to standards found in old photographs of the building.”

The Cedars at Kimberly, on the 90-acre site of the former NewPage paper mill, is Stadtmueller’s latest project. Design plans were recently revealed for a mixed-use commercial and residential neighborhood that will have plenty of walking trails and parks.

So why do all of these good, community-minded projects? Why not bulldoze or slap on some duct tape and be done with it?

“It’s a good question if you think of my work as real-estate development,” Stadtmueller said. “There are many other folks involved in real-estate development that don’t pay attention to opportunities like this.”

City of Appleton Community Development Director Karen Harkness praised Stadtmueller for the kinds of projects he selects to help recapture the history of Fox Cities’ communities.

“Randy takes on the really difficult, complicated, ‘patience-required’ projects that will have a large positive impact on their surrounding neighborhoods and the entire community,” Harkness said, citing Eagle Flats, a project his firm is undertaking at the former Riverside Paper Mill just steps from downtown Appleton. It currently includes a 54-unit apartment building and a 70-unit affordable senior living facility.

Stadtmueller is a proponent of placemaking, which the Project for Public Spaces says “inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community.”

“If you think of my work as community development, then the logic of these things is that we have a huge reservoir of very interesting places that are transitioning from manufacturing into commercial, residential and recreational use,” Stadtmueller said. “Engaging the community in designing these projects is very meaningful to me and to the community.”

Stadtmueller says he’s not the only one.

“Most of the partners I have worked with felt the same way and were looking for people in the way of developers or consultants to help them go through the process and establish something they felt good about,” he said.

Green Bay’s Matt Bero

You can want to, wish to, plan to, need to and dream of doing something forever, but unless you actually do something about that pipe dream, that’s all it’s going to be.

Green Bay artist Matt Bero noticed what he saw to be a dearth of public art in Green Bay’s central business districts and set out to remedy that. Look Up Art is his personal mission to help communities and artists find each other.

It started at a happy hour a little over a year ago. Bero – who by day is a digital designer for Associated Bank in Green Bay – and friends were talking about all the development and construction going on in Green Bay.

“We said it’s really great that this stuff is going up, but there’s a huge piece missing in the downtown area and in Green Bay as a whole – the arts and culture aspect that gets people engaged and involved in their community and really gives them a sense of pride in a lot of ways,” Bero said.

The group got on the topic of how murals can enliven a city.

“By the time we came out of there I self-assigned myself a task of creating a mural within the year.”

That was May of 2015.

By October, the community was admiring his “Morty the Moose” mural at 1274 Cedar St. in the Olde Main Street district. It took lots of networking, legwork and arm work – but most of all was just declaring he was going to do it.

“There are too many people who are just not fully intentional with what they’re doing, and they think about doing stuff, whereas I was like ‘I am definitely doing a mural this year, I don’t care where it is, I don’t care what the topic is, but it is my goal to do one of these by the end of the year,’” he said.

While doing the mural, Bero experienced firsthand the benefits public art brings to a community: engagement, traffic, economic development, pride in the community, and quality of life, he said.

“People came up and thanked me and were interacting with each other, and now they own that area as much as I do. They have a sense of pride in an area you’d otherwise just drive by and not think about.”

In August of this year, Bero spent two weeks traveling the country with the Millennial Trains Project fine-tuning his plans for Look Up Art. The cross-country journey on vintage rail cars was intended to inspire Millennials to advance their ideas for social projects, ranging from getting high school students politically active to creating refugee awareness. Bero focused on creating opportunities for artists through public art projects.

“Matt gets (the fact) that creativity without tactical execution is really just a waste of gifts,” said Brian Johnson, executive director of On Broadway, Inc. in Green Bay. “He knows how to execute and how to bring these things to market, and that’s what is really unique and different about him.”

Bero was instrumental in establishing a new public arts commission this year, which advises the mayor and city council on policies, funding and regulations related to the arts.

“Matt knows how to ignite passion in other people,” Johnson said. “Everyone’s got a different passion, but he knows how to light that spark within each person and get them excited.”

Bero serves on the Olde Main Street District’s Art On Main public art committee. In September he hosted Catalyst, an art ‘experience’ in downtown’s Watermark building to raise funds for future projects.

“I wanted to make it easier for other people moving forward,” he said. “Funding and permission are the two hardest things because if it’s a public building, there are all these hoops to jump through, and if it’s a private building, it becomes more of a funding thing.”

Funding was one piece of the puzzle he felt they could get a jump start on. His Catalyst event raised close to $20,000 for Art On Main.

“So we can be able to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘we have to wait on funding,’” Bero said. “Instead of waiting, I’m a doer. I want to fix things, and this is one thing we could fix.”  n

Lee Marie Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.