Champions of downtown who start businesses, invest in properties and volunteer to enhance the central city
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch
You know them. You have seen them.
Maybe from afar, maybe from next door, maybe on Facebook. They are in our midst, these uber-accomplishers – they walk among us.
But they are nothing like mere mortal human beings.
They’re on boards and winning awards. They’ve got busy families and fulltime jobs. They own companies and shape lives. They’re active in not one cause, but five. Their energy seems to have no limits. Nor does their generosity. They donate, they volunteer, they pitch in. And these local mega-beings use their power and energy to better their downtowns.
They may not run into burning buildings, but they do breathe new life into downtowns that otherwise might not be as successful. They are our downtown heroes.
Do not tell Kris and Sarrah Larson to orchestrate a zombie apocalypse. They could do it.
“When Kris gets an idea in his head, he finds a way to make it happen,” said Downtown Oshkosh Business Improvement District Manager Cassie Daniels.
Since returning to their hometown a few years ago after restaurateurship in Madison, Kris and Sarrah Larson have led the movement toward a revitalized downtown Oshkosh.
They started by launching Becket’s – along with partner, Chef Mike Buckarma – the popular riverside restaurant at the site of the former Park Plaza mall, and they haven’t stopped since.
A few years later, they purchased the former Wagner Opera House on North Main Street. Not only did they turn it into a hub of activity that includes a bicycle shop, butcher shop/grocery store, dance studio and apartments, but their own home as well.
“We’ve been trying to put things in there we feel belong there,” Kris Larson said.
The ball of wax started rolling when the Larsons, who are avid bikers, noticed a lack of bike-related shops downtown. “There used to be bike shops on Main Street when I was a kid growing up here but they’ve since moved out to the frontage road,” he said. “We found a guy we thought would be a good bike shop owner, built him out a space and put him in there.” Voila – Winnebago Bicycle was born.
Ski’s Market is the new kid on the block, having just opened in late October. Sarrah manages that.
It specializes in locally produced meats, chicken, produce and bakery products, with meat cut and sausages made on site. It’s part of the family-owned, Stevens Point-based franchise, Ski’s Meat Market.
“My best guess is that 10,000 to 15,000 people live in the central city these days. They’re lacking a grocery store in general,” Larson said. “(Ski’s) has everything you’d find in a grocery store, only with a 1920s market vibe.” Voila – Ski’s was born.
Daniels said for people who live near downtown Oshkosh, a gallon of milk can often mean a five-mile round trip.
“This is a great addition to our downtown,” Daniels said. “We’ve been looking for that for a while. We just couldn’t find the right company to do it.”
The Larsons also helped the summer farmers market move from the city hall parking lot to the 400 and 500 blocks of North Main Street by providing storage for tents and tables.
Filling a need for hands-on art as a social outing, Art Spot is a venture with Becket’s – it offers aspiring artists an evening of paint lessons with the accompaniment of beverages and appetizers.
“They are all about filling niches that the community wants to see,” Daniels said of the Larsons. “If they feel like there’s something missing from downtown that (they) would love to see downtown, (they) will find a way to make it happen.”
Downtowns are the hearts of our communities, Kris Larson said.
“There’s more spirit and heart there, to us. It’s easy to say it’s selfish because I work there and live there, but … we’re working to put things downtown that we’d like to see downtown.”
For the last two years, since the resounding success of the first two Mile of Music events, Dave Willems’ name has been almost synonymous with downtown Appleton, according to Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Downtown Appleton, Inc.
“You can’t talk about Dave without mentioning the Mile of Music – it’s huge,” said Stephany. “We’re calling it a game changer.”
Mile of Music is a four-day weekend of original musical acts by performers from all over the country. Some 150 artists perform in parks, bars, restaurants and other venues in downtown Appleton. It differs from a largely outdoor festival such as Octoberfest in that most concerts are held inside private businesses.
Willems said a big purpose of Mile of Music was to drive business downtown.
“We have a lot of wonderful events that occur downtown, but what seemed to be lacking were events that actually put people into the businesses and give them a chance to purchase goods from the businesses and at the same time have a great experience,” Willems said.
He said he had Austin’s South by Southwest festival in mind when he envisioned Mile of Music.
“(Downtown Appleton) is probably a better footprint than most places, in that we have multiple venues in a walkable stretch where you can have people floating in and out and at the same time spending money on beverages and food,” he said.
Most of the acts were free and were brought to town with the help of sponsorships from the local business community. Willems estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 people attended over the four-day stretch.
This year, Mile of Music reached the break-even status. Once the event is profitable, proceeds will go toward the Mile of Music Education Fund, Willems said.
Educating the next generation is important to Willems. His firm, Willems Marketing & Events, launched a student marketing program two years ago with the Appleton Area School District that mentors dozens of students at any given time.
“They get some tutelage from us and a part-time advisor from the school district, and we bring in experts from the community, entrepreneurs and business people,” Willems said.
Students learn how they can pursue a future in marketing whether it’s through technical college, a four-year degree or just going on to use marketing as an extra skill, Willems said.
Stephany called him a visionary who always keeps community needs in mind.
“He’s always looking for partnerships and how do we directly impact, whether economically or culturally, the betterment of our community,” she said.
“Dave is all about community. He’s very laid back and approachable, but by the time you are done talking to him, you are exhausted because of all the ideas he has,” Stephany said. For that reason, she keeps a file on her desk called “Crazy Ideas from Dave.”
Willems says the communities that have the strongest downtowns are the ones that nurture them.
“They’re the ones that make sure the center, the heart, the core of their community is vibrant, that it’s being paid attention to, that there’s activity going on, and that have a strategic plan – it’s got a vision of what it wants to be,” he said.
These communities also tend to be generous toward the non-profit organizations that need their help with things like homelessness.
“Am I saying we’ve handled it? No, but we handle it better than most communities handle it,” he said. “We just believe that if we can continue to drive the middle of the community being successful, that it will impact all the rest of the community.”
Green Bay – On Broadway
When gold and silversmith Michelle Winter was growing up, she wasn’t allowed to hang out in the Broadway district of Green Bay. Too many bar fights and other unsavory elements lurked there.
After she grew up and spent nearly a decade in Madison, she moved back to Green Bay. She and her then-husband and business partner Al Buch set up shop – The Gift Itself artisan jewelry store – a few blocks away from the Broadway district. It was 1993, and while the commercial strip on the west side of the Fox River had made some progress since its rough past, it wasn’t quite the showpiece of updated and restored historic spaces it is today.
“We had both lived through (developers) tearing down so many historic buildings on the east side,” Winter said. They didn’t want to see it happen on the west side.
In 1995, they bought an old building on Broadway that was about to be razed, renovated it and made it the home of The Gift Itself.
Other businesses did likewise. Broadway became first a Wisconsin Main Street district and then a Great American Main Street designation. It’s now the site of the farmers market, Taste on Broadway and Winterfest and enjoys a reputation as a place to go for unique specialty shops and eateries.
“We’ve got people on the board and volunteers from all over the city,” Winter said. “The amount of support is absolutely amazing. We have fabulous restaurants and places to shop.”
Christopher Naumann, executive director of On Broadway, Inc., called Winter “one of our first and most passionate leaders.”
“Michelle is one of our longer-term vested interests in the organization,” he said. “She was here long before the organization (On Broadway, Inc.) started; she was on the organizing board that helped bring the organization to birth.”
Naumann credits Winter with being involved in the district’s public art installations and aesthetic touches.
“She’s always been front and center to defend artist contributions and how they can be integrated into our district downtown in general,” Naumann said.
Even though she sold her business two years ago to a longtime employee and no longer owns property in the Broadway district, she remains active in On Broadway initiatives.
“She helped establish a business that is still in the community, and she helped transition that business to the next owner, who is now taking that concept and running with it,” Naumann said. “She is still passionately involved in our leadership and in the decisions made in our organization and how we impact the district.”
Winter now teaches jewelry techniques at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s Artisan Center in Green Bay’s Olde Main Street district on the east side of the Fox River.
Even if Winter has left the Broadway district physically, she hasn’t left it emotionally.
“There’s a feeling of family that the Broadway District has because we all started it together, because we all wanted to do something, we all wanted to save some buildings,” she said. “We wanted to create a walking district that people would really enjoy.”
Sofas and chairs don’t get used much at the Hemauer household.
With a blended family of eight kids, youth sports teams to coach, a business to run, historic properties to keep beautiful, the only chairs Scott Hemauer really uses are the kinds on committees.
“I am not the kind of person that sits around and watches TV,” Hemauer said. “I always have to be building, restoring, doing things and being active.”
In addition to his building at 113 S. Broadway on De Pere’s east side, Hemauer manages to restore vintage Rupp snowmobiles and motorcycles in what little free time he might have.
Hemauer & Zurawski – an agency for Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. – is housed in a historic building on De Pere’s Broadway corridor. When he bought it, it didn’t look much like it does now.
“He painstakingly restored it, and it’s been one of the absolute gems of the block,” said Allyson Watson, executive director of Definitely De Pere, Inc.
The building is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and the De Pere Historical Society gave it the Max Franc Business and Residential Award in 2010.
Why go through the bother of restoring it to National Register standards?
“We decided that if we were going to do it, why not do it right, and have some place that is a destination, a showpiece, just something we’re happy to come to every morning,” Hemauer said. Others followed.
“With his restoration, we have seen three other buildings on that block that have been restored, so a good chunk of that block has been restored,” Watson said. “Scott is really passionate about keeping the heritage and character of the downtown.”
A few years ago, when asked to fundraise to build the De Pere Riverwalk, Hemauer didn’t think twice.
“There was no other historic facility like that. It is unique in the Midwest to have that river access available to city residents, visitors, tourists, schools to do educational programs,” he said. “My wife and I always say there’s nothing you can’t get in De Pere.”
He’s currently championing the effort to create a business improvement district in downtown De Pere to help fund improvement programming. That issue will come before the De Pere City Council later this November.
Fond du Lac
“Build it and they will come.”
The phrase from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” gets used often enough, especially by aspiring retailers dreaming of starting specialty shops. But Fond du Lac developer Louie Lange says they’ve got it backward.
It should be ‘Get the people there first, then build it.’
“Often small retailers come in and put shops downtown, which is great, but they don’t survive long enough – they don’t have deep enough pockets to get to the point where people truly change their habits to go downtown to patronize them,” said Louie Lange III, president of The Commonwealth Companies, a development, property management and landscape company. “If we already had people who were down there, the chances of success are going to be that much greater.”
He’s observed big-box retailers building on the outskirts of cities because that’s where more people live – in suburbs, subdivisions and rural areas.
“They don’t say if we put a McDonald’s downtown, then everybody would drive downtown. They say we will put it in this location because it has a high population density or traffic or whatever metric they use,” Lange said.
Housing needs to lead the way in the redevelopment of downtowns, he believes. Too many downtown retail buildings are sitting vacant and need to be renovated.
“If they put one or two or four units in their existing buildings, now we’re creating a population density,” he said. “By having a population density, those are the people who are going to take advantage of the small shops and stores downtown, those are the people who are going to restaurants.”
He’s practicing what he preaches by adding affordable housing near downtown and housing his companies there.
In the last six years, Commonwealth has repurposed several old properties in Fond du Lac:
- Turning the former Trinity Lutheran Church into Trinity Restaurant and Hall, an upscale restaurant;
- Turning St. Peter’s Church into St. Peter’s Place apartments and office space;
- Plans to transform the former Wells Manufacturing building into The Garten Factory retail nursery and landscaping, opening in spring 2015;
- Plans to transform the former Retlaw Theater into office, retail and multi-family space;
- Turning a vacant retail property, formerly the Rent-It Center on Macy Street, into Riverside Senior Apartments, with Commonwealth Coffee Co. in the lower level.
Commonwealth Coffee’s slogan is “coffee with a kickback.” It donates 10 percent to a nonprofit, with a new nonprofit beneficiary every quarter.
“When you say downtown development, we rely on tons of people in this community, but if you had to point to one person, it’s Louie,” said Amy Hansen, executive director of Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership. “What he has done for our downtown is like no other.”
In 2008 during the slumped economy, nobody was building much. “Louie was the one that got things going in downtown Fond du Lac,” Hansen said. “He took a leap of faith when other people weren’t necessarily investing by saying ‘I’m going to buy Trinity church and turn it into a restaurant.’”
The Commonwealth Companies took on the Retlaw site partly because they’ve outgrown their current headquarters in St. Peter’s Place, but partly, too, by request of community leaders concerned about the property falling into disrepair.
“It’s not about Commonwealth or about getting rich, he is just so generous,” Hansen said.
Fond du Lac is working on developing Emergent Labs, a learning center and work space for emerging technology-based firms in the community. It needed seed money to get off the ground, establish a website, etc. “Louie said, ‘OK, I’ll give you $10,000 to get going,” Hansen said.
Lange said he considers it an investment in growing technology-related jobs in Fond du Lac.
“Why should Silicon Valley or California have a monopoly?” Chances of reclaiming lost manufacturing jobs are slim, so we need to invest in tech-related jobs, he said.
“What (Lange) does here in Fond du Lac, he does because this is his city and he loves it, and he wants it to be a great community for his family and for all of us,” Hansen said.
Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.