The historic Doerflinger building is full for the first time since its department store closed in 1984, another sign of resurgence downtown.
Third-floor tenant Authenticom is expanding to fill the last remaining empty space, about one-third of the fourth floor.
With about 115 people working in the Doerflinger, there’s probably more employees there than ever, said Tim Kabat, executive director of Downtown Mainstreet Inc., a nonprofit business group. An old staff group photo from the 1950s shows about 90 employees. And the expansion will allow for about 50 more employees at Authenticom in the next three years.
La Crosse business leaders hope the Doerflinger’s success spreads to other downtown buildings. But there’s a lot of work left to do. Up to 60 spaces sit empty in other historic buildings downtown.
“These upper floors are untouched frontier for new development and growth,” Kabat said.
Downtown Mainstreet is working with building owners to encourage redeveloping the empty spaces. It’s not an easy task. Renovations can be expensive, and some owners are holding back because of fire safety risks or lack of an elevator in some buildings.
But it’s possible, Kabat said.
Especially if other historic building owners follow in the foot steps of Mike Keil, Doerflinger owner.
When Keil bought the building in 2004, just two stores occupied the first floor. The rest of the levels had plastic over the windows, leaky roofs and portable heaters hanging from the ceilings to prevent pipes from freezing.
Still, he saw potential. And when Authenticom, a company that provides data services to the automotive industry, set up shop five years ago, the other businesses followed.
“It was a tough sell bringing tenants in at first,” he said.
Even Keil wasn’t sure if he’d be able to fill each of the floors completely.
“I dreamt about it,” he said.
Keil and his wife had already mapped out their new home in empty space on the fourth floor when Authenticom asked for more space.
Keil is optimistic the other historic downtown buildings will be renovated. There’s a big demand for residential property in that area.
Kabat says it may take 10 or 20 years before the downtown is entirely full.
“We have come a long way,” he said. “These projects are happening. We’ll have to see what’s holding others back and work with them.”
Sure, it’s easier to build new. But to invest in a building like the Doerflinger means so much more.
“It’s a testament to the community’s belief in the downtown and historic buildings,” Kabat said.ange.