Downtown reconstruction projects in Oshkosh, Neenah create challenges for Main Street businesses
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch
IT SOUNDS LIKE A RECIPE FOR DISASTER: Take 150 downtown Oshkosh businesses and tear up the main drag outside their front doors. Stir in the clamor of jackhammers and a fine dust of gritty dirt for nine months. Work the business owners up into a lather. Rinse and repeat.
“Nine months of road construction in front of your business is not something you’d want to have,” said Maureen Lasky, director of the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Corp’s Business Improvement District. “But I feel strongly that our businesses are going to be able to sustain themselves through the nine months and come out on top in the end.”
Downtown Oshkosh’s road-construction stew will be cooking from March to November, as North Main Street undergoes $6 million in water and sewer main upgrades, sidewalk widening and street scaping.
Both sides of North Main Street will be dug up – from the bridge over the Fox River through the 600 block of North Main – although certain cross streets will be open. In some areas, workers will be digging as deep as 26 feet underground.
“It’s going to be a completely different street,” Lasky said.
To stave off retail ruin, some of the would-be victims are taking their destiny into their own hands: They’re using creative strategies to capitalize on other, less obvious angles of their businesses.
Take Candy Pearson, for example. The owner of Apple Blossom Books, 513 N. Main St., will deliver orders throughout the duration of the construction.
Or Deb Allison-Aasby of Fine Country Gourmet, 417 N. Main St. She’s not only delivering orders free of charge, but volunteering to do in-home parties wherein guests sample her merchandise and, ideally, buy her wares.
“(A party) exposes more people to our products and gives them a chance to see what we’ve got,” Allison-Aasby said.
She’ll also use any down time to attend retail events and shows outside the area, which she otherwise would be too busy to do.
Julie Karner of Crescent Moon Antiques & Salvage, 537 N. Main St., is working with a catalog company to feature a new line of handmade harvest tables. She’s also expanding the Web site so that people can order 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world.
“This is a really exciting time for us,” Karner said.
LASKY IS TRYING TO TURN THE CONSTRUCTION into a positive by not only focusing on how snazzy downtown Oshkosh will look when it’s finished, but also by making sure accurate information gets out to the public as well as to business owners.
It may sound like a cliché, but communication is the key to making the difficult months go smoothly, reiterates Lynn Peters, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. Appleton businesses went through a similar upheaval in 2002 during the remake of College Avenue, and to a lesser extent, during the closure and reconstruction of the College Avenue Bridge during 2009. Peters said it’s important to remember non-residents when promoting the area during a construction period.
“We were concerned that people be informed – not just residents, but visitors, too,” Peters said. “They are already unfamiliar with the community, and we didn’t want convention goers to find themselves in a position where they were unable to find their hotel.”
Making sure area hotels are stocked with maps and instructions on how to get places, electronic updates, regular meetings, an information tree, block captains – all of these methods help, Peters said.
Contractors will hold weekly meetings for the Oshkosh project to keep everyone posted as to what’s happening. Business owners will also get a “tool kit” of frequently asked questions, maps, timeline, resources and further information on the project in March, Lasky said. Block captains will get the word out to those on their block.
Block captains are an especially good idea because they ensure neighbors communicate with each other “instead of assuming someone will see it in the newspaper,” Peters said.
“Block captains gave us a chance to say, ‘Don’t forget this event is coming up,’ or ‘There’s this one last thing,’” Peters said.
Neenah facing earth-breaking months
ALTHOUGH RELATIVELY MILD compared to Oshkosh’s nine-month interruption, the two-block reconstruction of Neenah’s West Wisconsin Avenue will no doubt make for a challenging early-summer retail season for affected business owners.
The project will begin in April and is slated to be finished in July.
One nuance that may make Neenah’s reconstruction project easier to stomach for those carrying on business as usual: “We’re only doing one side at once,” said Bob Buckingham, executive director for Future Neenah, Inc. “So one lane of traffic will be open throughout the duration of the project.”
To keep downtown Neenah in the forefront of people’s minds during the construction, Future Neenah, Inc., is moving up its annual gift-certificate sale from fall to spring.
The one-day only sale will be May 5 at the Future Neenah offices at 135 W. Wisconsin Ave. and will offer gift certificates to downtown businesses for discounted prices.
“You spend $40 and get $50 in value, up to $200 per person,” Buckingham said.
“Business Care” is the name of Neenah’s marketing and promotional efforts during the road construction months.
“If everyone is informed in the best way possible, you can sometimes head off problems,” Buckingham said.
Branding – it’s not just for goods
THE OSHKOSH BID HAS A STREET-CONSTRUCTION mascot – a Golden Retriever they’re calling “Main Street Max.” Actually it’s an alter ego of Lasky’s dog. Max will be dressed up as a construction worker and will make a few appearances around town. A caricature of him appears on the Downtown Oshkosh Web site and is being incorporated into news and updates about the Main Street construction project.
The BID consists of 100 property owners and 150 businesses in downtown Oshkosh. They pay additional taxes totaling $160,000 in order to be part of the BID, Lasky said. The BID sponsors beautification projects, events such as Waterfest, gallery walks, the summertime ‘Live at Lunch’ concert series, the annual holiday parade and movies in the park. The BID also has its own retail events throughout the year.
Although the back doors facing customer parking lots will be open, front doors will be open as well. Sidewalks will be open for pedestrians.
“Some people are thinking no one will be able to get in the front door, and that’s not correct,” Lasky said.
But she called Oshkosh “lucky” because most of its downtown businesses have back door entrances.
“People are afraid they are not going to be able to get anywhere downtown, because we have a lot of one-way streets, but they will,” Lasky said.
Accentuate the positive
ABOUT A DOZEN YEARS AGO, downtown Green Bay’s Broadway district underwent a major street reconstruction, similar to the one Oshkosh is facing.
It doesn’t help to get caught up in negative vibes, said Michelle Zjala Winter, co-owner of The Gift Itself handcrafted jewelry and arts store in Green Bay’s Broadway district.
“The doom-and-gloom thing doesn’t work,” Zjala Winter said.
Broadway was dug up for nine months – sidewalks, too. It hurt business, but some good things came out of it in addition to the trendy, citified look of Broadway when it was finished.
Customers had to enter Broadway businesses through their back or side doors, and in many cases, that meant schlepping through an alleyway. But they made it fun, Zjala Winter recalled, by teaming together with other Broadway businesses for a promotion they called “Alley Cat.”
“If you came in our back door and said ‘Alley Cat,’ your name would be entered in a drawing,” Zjala Winter said.
The Gift Itself chose to transform the lost summer into “the summer that we’d make stuff.”
“We made a boat load of stuff, and our customers who did find us were terrific,” Zjala Winter said.
Don’t make a negative out of it, Zjala Winter advises Oshkosh business owners.
“Make it positive. We were so jazzed up about the street renovations, how could we not be excited. We said things like ‘This is so cool!’ Don’t portray to your customers that it’s a negative.”
Tweet till the street’s complete
ONE ADVANTAGE TODAY’S construction survivors: Social media.
Jay Schumerth, general manager of The Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton and the chair of the board for Appleton Downtown Inc., called instant updates via Web and phone “a wonderful opportunity to drive business into your back door or two doors down, or wherever you have to bring them.” Schumerth has been with the Radisson Paper Valley for the last 24 years and experienced College Avenue’s 2002 resculpting.
“There’s a big opportunity now with Facebook and Twitter – you can float offers out to your customers, let them know how to get there. We didn’t have that before,” Schumerth said.
He admits it’s hard to be upbeat when no customers walk through your doors, but he and his neighbors tried to have as much fun with it as they could.
One construction event stands out in his memory: “We told parents to bring their kids downtown with their (toy) dump trucks and play in the dirt,” Schumerth said. “The kids saw it as the coolest thing, because they got to sit in the middle of the (closed off) street and dig in the dirt, and it brought people downtown, so it was a win-win.”
Partnerships with compatible businesses also helped: A local museum peddled a few of the Paper Valley’s specials, and Building for Kids children’s museum offered discounts to guest families of the Paper Valley.
“Find opportunities for cross promotion – businesses that work well together in cross promotional events,” Schumerth said.
Cross promoting, the act of offering the customer deals at another business if they patronize yours, can maximize business from a limited number of customers, Schumerth said.
But he admits Appletonians had a strong incentive to weather the storm.
“One thing we had going for us was the PAC was going to open at the end of the project,” Schumerth said. “We had a pretty shiny penny we were looking at, at the end of the construction period.”
Lasky said she hopes that when the project is finished, Oshkosh’s downtown business district will be held up as an example to other communities facing downtown road construction.
“I hope Oshkosh will be leading the forefront in showing how you maintain a positive image during road construction,” she said. “I will keep my fingers crossed.”
And no doubt Main Street Max will be crossing his paws.
An alumna of Ripon College, Lee Marie Reinsch is a freelance writer based in Green Bay.