Economic development humming along in BRF

Darren Durman is the owner of the Merchant General Store in downtown Black River Falls. His store is one of many historic locations in downtown Black River Falls, which is why the city is looking at developing a historic district in the area.

Administrator Brad Chown had a long list of economic development activities happening in Black River Falls as his time came up during the Economic Development meeting held last Monday.

This has become common for Chown and the city of Black River Falls as the city has had a lot of economic development news to share this year including the new Kwik Trip and Arby’s that have come to town.

“We really are a fantastic location, we always have been. I think that the economy has come to the point where we are recovering from 2008 and people are starting to expand and take a little bit more risk,” said Chown.

With a lot of growth happening near Interstate 94, Chown is hoping creating a historic district downtown will be a new tool that can continue to spur economic development in the area.

“If we are able to get a historical preservation district designated in downtown BRF, that will just give another tool to developers that are looking to refurbish historical buildings,” Chown said explaining the district is expected to be between Fillmore and Harrison streets and probably from Fourth or Fifth streets to Water Street.

Darren Durman, the 15-year owner of the Merchant General Store in downtown Black River Falls, owns one of the many historic buildings in the downtown area. The building where his store is located was originally built in 1912 after the flood of 1911, which is when Ed Lochen lost his shoe store in the flood. That is when Lochen decided to move his store up the hill. Durman’s store includes several treasures from the Lochen Shoe Store including the original cash register and some original shelving.

Durman has been interested in making downtown Black River Falls a historic district since the 1990s, “There was a lot of talk to do a historic district at that time, but the momentum wasn’t really there. There were just a few people interested.”

By naming downtown Black River Falls a historic district, business owners will be able to apply for tax credits if they refurbish the building to National Park Service standards. Only the business owners that receive the tax credits would be required to improve the building to these standards.

“If a business owner decides that they want to do some historically relevant renovation or they want to work at getting their building back to what it once was, it gives them the potential economic tools to do that,” Black River Country Chamber of Commerce executive director Chris Hardie said.

Durman said that this would have been a tremendous help for new businesses like Revolution Coffee, which worked very hard to maintain the historic look and feel of the building they now use.

Durman believes it is stores like Revolution Coffee and others in the area that make people stick around, “I had ladies that stopped and were just pulling off the road stretching their legs. They ended up spending the day here and it wasn’t just because we had a few retail spots. It was because they went down and had lunch at Donna K’s and they went over and had some coffee and chit chatted and then went to the shops and then later went and had a glass of wine. You want to have something where it is not just a couple of stores and then they are heading out.”

Daina Penkiunas, deputy state historic preservation officer for the Wisconsin Historical Society, said there is also one more major advantage, “For the city, it is an important tool to know what they have and to tell the (community's) story.”

Durman is also excited about the marketing and publicity opportunities becoming a historic district would bring, “I feel that there are other benefits beyond that because as a historic district, it has recognition. It becomes a little bit more award winning, almost like you have been selected.”

Penkiunas said the next step is for the city to decide if they would like to pursue the district, including getting community and business owner support for the district.

The community would also have to figure out how to pay for the project because the community would need to hire a consultant to prepare the nomination to be approved by a review board.

“What we look for in a historic district is a collection of buildings that fit with the other types of properties involved,” Penkiunas said explaining that the buildings in a district need to give you a sense of place and time.

Penkiunas said typically a district is a tight concentration of buildings that are more than 50-years-old with minimal modern changes.

Chown also mentioned that a developer is currently working on two large potential projects that would be located in the downtown area.

During the meeting, Chown was also happy to report that the city is planning on extending Andrews Road near Walmart all the way to Hwy. 12.

“The reason we are looking at doing it now is the fact that the TIF district is now financially healthy and able to handle the expansion and we feel that will also be a catalyst for developing the property between Hwy. 54 and Hwy. 12.”

Chown said that a business is already looking at developing behind Walmart.

The city hopes to have the project out for bids in the spring with construction to happen next summer. Funds for the project are expected to come from the TIF district in the area.

Chown was also able to report that Tricor Insurance and Cell Plus have signed leases for two of the storefronts in the new mall near Arby’s, but the developer is currently working on filling two to three other spots in the building.



Jordan is the editor of the Jackson County Chronicle. He was born-and-raised in Taylor, Wis. and now he and his family live in Alma Center, Wis. Contact him at 715-284-0085.

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