New effort to revitalize downtown gets underway

The Shawano Leader/November 11, 2006
By Tim Ryan

Business owners, community leaders and others interested in the future of downtown Shawano gathered at the Community Hall Thursday night for a dialogue aimed at helping put together a downtown development plan.

Steve Sengstock, executive director of Shawano County Economic Progress, Inc. (SCEPI) said he was approached by the Downtown Business Association and Business Improvement District to see if there was anything SCEPI could do to drive more business downtown.

But, Sengstock said, the question that arose from that discussion was, "if we drove traffic downtown now, what’s the impression people will get?"

Instead, Sengstock said, a planning team was put together to engage in a series of steps toward a comprehensive economic development plan to help revitalize the downtown and reestablish Shawano as a regional shopping destination.

Since July, the Shawano Downtown Business Association, Business Improvement District Board and Shawano County Economic Progress, Inc. (SCEPI) have been working with UW-Extension and NWTC to develop a downtown economic development plan.

About three dozen people turned out to answer questions thrown at them by Sengstock, including what immediate improvements could be made to help downtown.

"The patient is downtown Shawano," he said. "What action needs to be taken to make the patient better?"

Sengstock said that could mean something that’s missing from downtown, or something that is presently a part of the downtown that maybe shouldn’t be.

"Are there some negative things that don’t need to be part of the mix anymore?" he asked.

For some downtown business owners, the obvious answer was vacant buildings.

"Something needs to be done about the buildings owned by (R.C.) Samanta Roy," said Jeff Kirchner.

The Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology and its subsidiaries own several vacant buildings downtown. It also owns Spirit of the Northwoods, one of the largest downtown stores that is currently in operation.

Kirchner said he would like to see SIST do away with the "coming soon" signs it has had in the windows of some of its downtown buildings for the past two years.

"Those are a joke," he said.

Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), who attended the meeting, was later asked by Sengstock about state legislation covering eminent domain and what the city might be able to do to acquire chronically vacant properties.

However, Cowles said state legislation has placed restrictions on the use of eminent domain.

"Wisconsin provisions make it difficult," he said.

Though vacant properties were the first and for some the most pressing challenge that was brought up, there were several others.

One that was referred to several times was the lack of uniform downtown shopping hours.

"If you’re closing at 5 p.m., you’re missing a big portion of the market," said Terry Hilgenberg.

Several businesses keep extended evening and weekend hours, but some of those business owners complained about the lack of other options for shoppers in the evening and the weekend due to so many other stores being closed.

Some said many families have two working parents with no time to shop between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

That has been a recurring issue downtown, where more than a decade ago a "Live after Five" campaign was attempted. But a number of stores still choose to close at 5 p.m.

Ron Neuman maintained that the problem isn’t so much that there is something the downtown lacks, but that not enough people are aware of what the downtown offers. He said the downtown needs to create more business awareness, which would in turn attract shopping alternatives downtown.

"Everything will domino," he said. "Other businesses will get hungry and follow."

Jim Warren, who chairs the BID Board, said more money needs to be invested to recruit additional businesses, particularly specialty shops. He added that the downtown – which went through some reconstruction just a couple of years ago – is better than it used to be.

"We’ve had some wonderful improvements over the last five years," he said.

Mayor Lorna Marquardt suggested that some effort be made to capture some of the casino business through package deals or other offers.

"Many bus loads of people come up for a weekend trip," she said.

Sengstock said that another aspect to be considered was a trend toward making downtowns entertainment centers, as well as shopping areas.

"Forty years ago, downtowns were commodity-driven," he said. "Today, you have to make it entertaining."

Sengstock said after the meeting that there had been a lot of quality feedback. He was, however, disappointed in the turnout, which he said seemed to be affected by a Ducks Unlimited banquet going on the same night. He said he wasn’t aware of the banquet when the meeting was scheduled.

The next stop in the process is a survey that will go out to about 2,000 homes and businesses, Sengstock said. Among the questions the survey will ask is why people come to downtown Shawano, and perhaps more importantly why some don’t.

Sengstock said it is hoped that a completed revitalization plan could be in place by April or May of next year.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.