Small towns revive historical Main Streets

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Note: Printed with Permission from the Capital Times, article by Mike Ivey.
COLUMBUS - The history of Wisconsin is best told on the Main Streets of its small towns and cities.
The downtowns, with their hotels and railroad stations, banks and libraries, hardware stores and taverns, once served as the centers of commercial and civic life.
Whitney Coffee Emporium
Whitney Coffee Emporium
After World War II, however, growth in the suburbs and bigger cities began drawing people away from Wisconsin's smaller communities. By the 1960s, shopping centers dominated retail trade and downtowns floundered. More recently, the Wal-Marts and Kmarts put a new kind of pressure on local business.
Many communities tried to respond by launching programs to revive their lagging downtowns. These plans, unfortunately, tended to ignore the historic aspects of the downtown areas.
Instead, they focused on dressing up the Main Street to make it look more "modern." Fake fronts were added to some older buildings. Other buildings were simply demolished.
But a growing number of Wisconsin cities have since realized the historic nature of downtown is indeed their best asset.
In this crossroads city 25 miles northeast of Madison, a 140-year-old hotel, a bank designed by Louis Sullivan and an 1892 City Hall have formed the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization.
Columbus is one of 28 cities in Wisconsin with Main Street programs. Established by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1980, the program assists downtown revitalization efforts.
It emphasizes restoration of the historic character of downtown while pursuing traditional development strategies - marketing, business recruitment and retention, real estate development, market analysis and public improvements.
Judy Goodson, manager of the Columbus Main Street program, calls the effort a work in progress. Two recent retail vacancies downtown on Ludington Street - old U.S. 151 - are consuming her attention at the moment.
"People are asking, 'You've been at this for six years. When is it going to be done?'" she said. "But there is always more you can do."
Wisconsin established its own Main Street program in 1987. Each year, the Department of Commerce selects new communities to join the program. Communities receive technical support and professional training to help with their revitalization efforts.
To date, the results have been impressive. Since 1988, the state's Main Street program has attracted 1,486 new businesses and 7,996 new jobs and generated $255.3 million in new investment, according to the Department of Commerce.
"I know this sounds like a cliche, but the Main Street program really is a public-private partnership," said Jim Engle, who started in 1990 as assistant coordinator of the Main Street program and now heads it as director of the state's Bureau of Downtown Redevelopment.
Rather than distribute money directly to the Main Street cities, the state offers technical advice and assistance. The rest is up to the individual communities. "The big difference between this and other programs is that participants must raise their own money," said Engle, pointing out that every $1 spent by the state on the Main Street program has been matched by $30 from other sources.
Communities are encouraged to tailor their programs to meet their own needs.
"You don't go in, have two festivals and then your downtown is fixed," said Tony Hozeny, a spokesman for the Department of Commerce.
The Whitney Hotel
Whitney Hotel before rehabilitation
An effort to save the Whitney Hotel spurred Columbus into joining the Main Street program in 1992.
The original hotel was built in 1847, destroyed by fire in 1857 and then replaced by a cream city brick building. Though it is rather plain looking, it has a long history as the most prominent hotel and social center in Columbus.
But over time the building has fallen into despair. "Nobody wanted it," says Goodson. "They were going to tear it down to make room for six more parking spaces."
That's when prominent local resident Mary Poser started a fund-raiser to save the hotel. She enlisted business and civic leaders, who formed the Columbus Downtown Development Commission. The group then partnered with Heartland Development Corp., the real estate wing of Wisconsin Power & Light Co., to buy the hotel.
By 1992, the upper floors of the Whitney were converted into apartments. The lower floors were renovated into offices for the Columbus Journal and a coffee shop. Total cost: $700,000.
Goodson said the Whitney project has sparked a renewed interest in historic Columbus. The city of 4,300 has more than 200 buildings dating to the 19th century.
"What the program does is make you look at your community and say, "What are our assets? What are our liabilities?'" she said.
The most architecturally significant asset in Columbus is the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank. One of eight small Midwestern bank buildings designed by Sullivan, the 1919 Prairie School-style bank is elaborately decorated with terra cotta ornamentation for which the Chicago architect is famous.
In 1997, bank directors began restoration of the facade. They hired John Waite of Albany, N.Y., to oversee the project. Waite also directed the recent restoration of the Red Gym on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Piece by piece, the bank's terra cotta was removed, restored and rebuilt. The entire process took 14 months, with the restored facade formally unveiled in December.
"I won't even tell you how much it cost," said John Pratt, vice president of the bank. "Let's just say we've been blessed from the beginning with a board of directors who know what this building means."
Goodson said that understanding the unique qualities of each community is central to downtown revitalization.
"You have to get back to your roots," she says, "Don't waste your assets or sell off your potential."
For Columbus, that has meant playing up the history through burgeoning antique businesses downtown. Communities like Sturgeon Bay have focused on location and tourism. Mineral Point has played to its mining history and Welsh heritage.
Main Street director Engle says the challenges will remain. But the key is saving the old buildings, which stand as living landmarks.
"The buildings are the way you can really see the preservation," he said. "Unfortunately in some communities that ethic is not quite as strong as it needs to be."
Current Main Street communities include Antigo, Beloit, Black River Falls, Columbus, Darlington, DePere, Dodgeville, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Marshfield, Mineral Point, Osceola, Pewaukee, Phillips, Rice Lake, Richland Center, Ripon, River Falls, Sharon, Sheboygan Falls, Sturgeon Bay, Tigerton, Two Rivers, Viroqua, Waupaca and Wautoma.
Communities in the Main Street program must follow four major principles:
  • Organization, which involves forming a group with a variety of stakeholders including bankers, merchants, citizens, public officials and chamber of commerce.
  • Design, which enhances the attractiveness of the business district through restorations, street cleanups, banners or lighting.
  • Economic restructuring, which involves recruiting new business, converting unused spaces for new uses and sharpening the competitiveness of Main Street merchants.
  • Promotion, which involves marketing to shoppers, investors and visitors.
"There is a domino effect when a downtown starts to go," said Engle. "But it goes both ways. These things can turn around pretty fast once they get going."

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