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Unfunding Main Street


Loss of program dollars under governor’s proposed state budget could hobble local downtowns

Story by Cheryl Hentz

One noticeable omission from Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2011-13 biennial state budget is the elimination of Wisconsin’s highly successful and well-regarded Main Street Program.  Started in 1988 to help revitalize traditional downtown commercial districts in communities across the state, the economic development initiative has spawned 36 formal Main Street programs throughout Wisconsin, with local programs helping out downtown retail districts in Ripon, Fond du Lac, De Pere and Green Bay.

These local programs are financially sustained by their own communities, often through downtown business improvement districts – via special assessments for properties in the district, parking meter revenue, etc. – and occasionally through partial support from a chamber of commerce or other financial gifts from businesses and foundations in the community.

But that doesn’t mean state assistance hasn’t been helpful – or even been critical, in some instances. The state Department of Commerce has a staff of four fulltime employees providing highly intensive training to Main Street organizations’ staff and volunteer boards during the first five years after they’re admitted into the program, as well as regularly recurring assistance after their five-year start-up period. That equates to an estimated value to each community of more than $125,000 in the first five years and an additional value of about $5,000 per community in each subsequent year. Local Main Street program staff – and particularly, the volunteer board of directors – change often enough to make continued training warranted long after an organization is accepted into the program.

The cost of operation for Wisconsin’s Main Street program is about $400,000 annually, but the return on investment has proven tremendous. Since 1987 the program has stimulated the following economic successes: 17,865 new jobs created; 4,030 new businesses opened; more than 5,600 building rehabilitation projects; and more than $1.1 billion of private investment generated within Wisconsin’s Main Street communities. In addition, façade improvements and building rehabilitation projects have upgraded the image of many historic centers of commerce, and promotional activities have brought communities together in a positive way. Wisconsin Main Street works in the commercial core of a community by strengthening businesses, maintaining a sense of place and community life for the people of Wisconsin.

“As an economic stimulus, the Main Street Four Point Approach (organization, design, business development/economic restructuring and promotion) has proven to be one of the most cost-efficient economic development programs at work in the state,” said John H. Sigwart, president for the Wisconsin Main Street Alliance, a not-for-profit union of the state’s more than 30 formal Main Street programs. Sigwart added that every state dollar invested in the Wisconsin Main Street program has provided a return on investment of $49.34.

“This is a very small program with a very big impact. Unlike other programs in the Department of Commerce, the Wisconsin Main Street Program does not give money away. It teaches locally hired Main Street staff, municipal employees and volunteers how to improve the appearance, economic climate, property values and prosperity of businesses located in their downtowns,” said Jim Schuh, executive director for the alliance.

“With no funding, it would leave these communities without a fair amount of expertise. Communities could hire those kinds of services or try to find volunteers who might be able to help with some of those things, but they’ve experienced a number of shared revenue cuts and so forth in recent years, so their money is tight, too. That is the biggest problem I see. There’s also the statewide networking that’s provided through the state program that would likely be lost if there’s no funding.”

Schuh and his office have been in contact with Gov. Walker since last November outlining the benefits of the program, but as of late April, have had no response, he said.

“He says one of his biggest goals is job creation. But here we have a program that has created thousands of jobs since its inception and costs very little to operate, in comparison, each year, and there is no money being provided for it,” Schuh said, adding they’ve also been talking to legislators, especially those who have communities in their districts with active Main Street programs.

Pioneering the idea in Ripon

Ripon is one of those communities. In fact, Ripon’s program is one of the oldest in the state, dating back to 1988. During those more than 20 years, dozens of new businesses have been recruited to downtown Ripon, decreasing the building vacancy rate from 26 percent to less than 3 percent, according to Craig Tebon, downtown manager for the city of Ripon.

Numerous redevelopment projects have helped increase assessed property values by nearly 75 percent, amounting to more than $14 million in public and private investment. And the state’s Main Street program has assisted with public improvement projects such as the Watson Streetscape renovation, implemented an aggressive business recruitment and retention campaign, and created promotions such as the Village Green Concert Series, Dickens of a Christmas, Pumpkin Fest and the Watson Street Farmer’s Market.

On three occasions during the last decade, Ripon was selected as a semifinalist for the Great American Main Street Award which recognizes exceptional accomplishments in downtown revitalization across the nation. The economic development projects initiated by Ripon Main Street, Inc., such as the renovation of Pratt’s Block and most recently the Scott Street building, are attracting a great deal of attention from other communities interested in organizational initiated development.

“But it’s the downtown as a whole that we’re proud of. There aren’t many downtown districts that are continuous. Our downtown is relatively small – it’s only about three blocks long – but it’s really almost identical in appearance to the way it was in the 1800s when the buildings were first built,” Tebon said, adding that to lose the statewide resources would hurt Ripon more in the long run than the short term.

“Right now we’ll be okay, but where it will hurt is losing those quarterly training seminars that we’ve been attending. They have helped create a really well-rounded economic development program. We’re not just talking about business recruitment and we’re not just talking about creating a festival. We’re talking about a well-rounded program and it will hurt to not have the access to people who can help us with future challenges we face.”

A strong tradition in De Pere

De Pere’s Main Street Program started in 1990 and has since been merged with a downtown business improvement district to form the De Pere Area Chamber of Commerce, though it is still a vital and vibrant program within the chamber.

“The program was started because at that time most blocks that would eventually become the Main Street district had an 80 percent vacancy rate. That was before we had significant development,” said Cheryl Detrick, president and CEO of the De Pere chamber.

“Everything along Reid Street, the Reid Street Crossing, the Marquette Center, Nicolet Highlands Apartment, the 555 Reid Street Apartments, the Humana Dental Building that sits at Reid and Fourth; none of that existed back then. Today we have an occupancy rate of about 94 percent, and I would say the vast majority of it is a direct result of the Main Street program.”

Since becoming a Main Street Program, Detrick said 377 new businesses started, while another 179 had been expanded and a total of 1,839 jobs created in downtown De Pere.

Detrick said her staff hasn’t used state program assistance as much in recent years, but recognized it’s been good to know it’s available when needed.

“We’ve been members of the program for awhile, so we’re not in that heavy need time. But still, there are seminars and technical assistance that we’ll lose if there’s no funding in the budget. We’ll also lose access to resources like small business specialists in Madison,” Detrick said. “That would mean we – and every other community – would probably have to buy that kind of expertise themselves, which we probably wouldn’t do. We would just try to find other ways to create the data or other materials they provide.”

They are also entitled to three free architectural drawings per year that they would lose access to, meaning they would then have to find and pay for those services on their own.

“The direct dollar loss to De Pere isn’t going to be what it will be to a community that hasn’t been in the program that long. But what we will lose on an aggregate basis, which I think is much more important, is that concentrated focus on reviving our downtown and this 21- or 22-year old formula that we know works. And I think that denigrates us all,” she noted.

Green Bay’s On Broadway

Among the most prominent Main Street programs in the region is On Broadway, Inc., located in Green Bay’s Broadway district on the west side of the Fox River. The organization was admitted into the state’s program in October 1995.

Christopher Naumann, executive director of On Broadway, said prior to the launch of the organization, there were businesses that were “nefarious, to say the least. There were taverns that were very poorly run and managed; there were rumored houses of ill-repute; there were things going on here that were not family-friendly and that were not conducive to positive economic development.”

As a program, it’s been successful in reclaiming an area of the historic west side of downtown Green Bay, bringing it back from being a red light district and turning it into an area that caters to small businesses, boutique shopping and unique restaurants, while also preserving the historic atmosphere and character of the buildings. On Broadway has also helped enhance private investment and economic development in the area, as well as helped grow promotional events.

“Our Farmer’s Market has grown to the point where it is the second largest Farmer’s Market in the state, drawing an average of 5,000 to 6,000 people a week for 20 weeks. We also have a taste event, which is like a food sampling event, and we draw 16,000 to 18,000,” Naumann said. “These kinds of events have really distinguished our program from other Main Street programs in terms of where our growth vehicle is. And they’ve really become a primary source of funding for our organization because we are completely independent as a nonprofit.”

As with other more distinguished Main Street programs, if state funding is cut, On Broadway isn’t going to be as significantly impacted as those communities whose programs are fairly new and just getting started.

“We’ll feel it, but not as much as some of the smaller, newer programs that rely more heavily on the technical support from the state,” Naumann said. “That said, I came into this position last year, not having any Main Street program experience as a new director. And I personally leveraged the state program for my technical training to get up to speed on how to run the program.

“For our day-to-day operations we don’t lean on the program as much, but certainly for leadership development and consistency and continuity in our programs, the state program has been critical for us.”

Fond du Lac

Fond du Lac has one of the newer Main Street programs in the New North region, having been admitted after a spirited and in-depth application process that engaged much of the community in 2004. The program operates through the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership, which is supported through the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce.

Amy Hansen, executive director of the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership, wasn’t in her position when Fond du Lac started its Main Street program, but believes it helped the community get organized to start new initiatives.

“When you become a Main Street program, (the state assistance) helps you to stay more focused. There’s the ongoing training development, the networking amongst all the other Main Street communities that helps keep your program stronger, and you rely on the other executive directors for advice and professional support,” she said.

While Hansen couldn’t point to any specific successes the city has realized as a direct result of the state Main Street program, she did say community awareness and support for the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership has steadily increased. And she acknowledges they’ll lose professional resources if no funding is provided for the program, but she wouldn’t speculate what the organization would do without those resources and services.

Cheryl Hentz is a freelance writer from Oshkosh with more than 25 years experience. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines and cover topics including business and economic development, minority issues, family pets and animal rights, finance, politics and women’s issues. She can be reached at 920.426.4123 or via email at