Call it a resurgence. Downtown La Crosse has added new businesses to once-vacant storefronts, attracted tenants to new high-end apartments and restored some of its oldest historic buildings — all during a recession.
It's been no easy task taking the remnants of a downtown deserted in the late 1970s and early '80s for a shiny new mall on Hwy. 16 and bringing it back to a viable neighborhood.
Store after store left the city center. At the lowest point, it was difficult to even buy a birthday card on your lunch hour. And most of the housing downtown was less-than-desirable space rented to college students.
There wasn't a lot of money changing hands.
La Crosse City Planner Larry Kirch knew the key to getting businesses back downtown was to make it a neighborhood again, to bring tenants back to the downtown apartments.
But how? Because the buildings are old, they are expensive to renovate. Prices skyrocket if an elevator needs to be installed.
The answer, in part, has been a series of urban renewal programs targeted at offering low-interest loans to developers.
"Over time, we learned our lesson," Kirch said.
Planners knew they had to get around the sticker shock of redevelopment and show people the income potential.
"It's still a struggle," Kirch said. "To me, it's neverending. Your downtown revitalization program never ends."
But it does reach milestones.
Vacant storefronts have fallen from 45 - before the recession - to 31 today. Restaurants increased from 31 in 2008 to 42. There are two fewer taverns.
"When we compare 2008 numbers to today, vacant storefronts are the most visible indicator," said Tim Kabat, who used to be with the city's Planning Department and is now the director of Downtown Mainstreet Inc., a group that promotes downtown business. "That number is headed in the right direction. You need a concentration of retail, then they feel good walking around. If not, there's less foot traffic because there's a perception that nothing's there."
Developers Marvin Wanders and Mike Keil have a lot to do with whittling the numbers of vacant storefronts. When they looked downtown, they saw interesting old buildings that needed saving. Yes, they are both bottom line guys. But more, they love old buildings, and Wanders said you need that affection for architecture to take on some of these less-than-ideal makeover projects.
Set to open next month, Crunch, Kate Gerrard's new restaurant, is the latest project of Keil and Wanders at 329-333 Main St.
"The building always looked kind of rough," Keil said. "It had plywood on the side. It just didn't look good. We've got State Bank on one corner, Doerflingers on another corner. We felt it sure would be nice if it someone would fix that building up a little bit."
Not only did they add a new business to downtown, they fixed a historic building in the process.
Key to the whole project, the developers said, was the city's Upper Floor Restoration program, which offers low interest rates to downtown developers.
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"Mike and I joined on it because it was such an eyesore," Wanders said. "When we started taking the siding off, the brick started collapsing. The city really worked with us on that, too. With all of our historic renovation, the city has been helpful. It's a good example of the Upper Floor Restoration program because the city loaned us money at a low interest rate to help save that building. It wants those buildings to be saved. Other communities can't build what we've saved downtown.
"Strictly speaking, we would be better off spending our time in other places as a business," Wanders said, "but as a business we choose to go downtown. We think it's important."
Kirch said each building block, such as the addition of Crunch, makes downtown a more viable place.
"Dublin Square is a nice addition, too," he said. "Getting that outdoor seating, that's what people see in other towns they go to. Our sidewalks aren't wide enough to do a lot of that but that's still on private property."
And the rapid growth of Logistics Health Inc. has also transformed downtown - both in looks and by bringing people to the downtown area. There are more people working downtown, Kirch said, and likely more people wanting to live downtown to be close to work and the nightlife.
There are other positive signs, including Western Technical College's rain gardens, the extension of the River Walk and the buildings of Riverside Center, LHI's complex of waterfront workspace.
As more buildings are brought back into use, the look of downtown changes and so does the atmosphere.
It's one reason why Cathy Bauer and her husband, Ed, opened Cabin Coffee Co. at 401 Jay St. They moved here from Mason City, Iowa, to be closer to family and to try something new.
"My husband and I decided it was a career change, an opportunity to open a business we could run ourselves," she said. We had been in cabinetry manufacturing."
Bauer said the entire process — from permitting to setting up shop — has been made as easy as possible.
"We find it very warm and welcoming here," she said. "The environment is progressive and business friendly. We have had great reception from the DMI and the Chamber as well as the council as we were trying to put together all the permitting. We found it a very positive experience."
Kirch said the key is to keep the momentum going with things like the ever-expanding Cameron Park Market and the ever-growing International Friendship Gardens in Riverside Park.
"All those things add to a sense of place," he said. "It's not just the housing. All of it is what makes downtown work. We still have a long way to go."
But the journey has been shortened by recent improvements.
"We see a lot of people walking dogs downtown," Kirch said, another indication that downtown is a neighborhood. "You have to have a downtown that has people living downtown to make the retail work, to make some of the restaurants work. We struggle to find the right balance."
Tim Acklin, another city planner for La Crosse, said historic buildings downtown were at the core of the city's proposal in 2008 for the Wisconsin Mainstreet Program, a state-run assistance network that provides support to city's trying to revamp their downtowns. Also important were the mixed uses the city wanted for downtown.
"I think it's important for us to have residential downtown," Acklin said. "Those people will help support commercial downtown. One is going to feed the other. When we did the transit center, we didn't just want a bus station. We wanted mixed use to make the most of what we have."
That's why multi-story buildings that are fully occupied are important, he said. "It makes the most of the land. We don't have a lot of land to build with."