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'Uptowne' embracing unique character of La Crosse's North Side

'Uptowne' embracing unique character of La Crosse's North Side

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The exact boundaries of the area of La Crosse known as Old Towne North are fuzzy, with many people placing the divider halfway down the 1100 block of Caledonia Street at The Sweet Shop and running up to the opposite end of the 1200 block.

But those wandering a bit farther down the street will find themselves surrounded by plants at a store called Herbs All Around. On the other side, the street is capped by Savory Creations and Old Towne North Pets, but, half a block down, visitors can see a barber shop and an honest-to-goodness cobbler at Lenny’s Shoe Repair on Clinton Street.

The once-bustling downtown, which has been a commercial hub for more than 130 years, is quiet most days, broken up by flurries of activity as classes at the relatively new Root Down Yoga and Bebop & Bundle let out, releasing yogis of all ages and parents with their children into the street.

They mix with regular visitors to restaurants and businesses that have been there for decades, such as Carrier Insurance and The Sweet Shop, which sits halfway down the next block, embracing La Crosse’s North Side’s blue-collar charm.

The minds behind the Uptowne Summit planned for Wednesday through Friday hope to harness that character and build it into a new brand, re-energizing Old Towne North with a grassroots revitalization effort.

North La Crosse Business Association president Nick Roush partnered with Adrian Lipscombe and Andrew Londre of Urbanlocity to create the three-day, free event, which hopes to rebrand the area as Uptowne to build on the city’s growth and uncover the potential of the community.

“It’s a destination that’s worth the trip, not just a way point,” Roush said.

As someone who has worked there for years, Roush is passionate about the area, which he sees as “an untapped resource” with access to the river, parks, unique businesses and a great history.

North Side Pride

The North Side has its own feel, and it centers around the downtown of North La Crosse, as it was known before the separate municipality merged with La Crosse proper in 1871.

The municipalities were split between the bankers and the workers, with La Crosse’s South Side housing the banks and the North Side being the home of the sawmills and lumberyards.

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat described the rivalry as “something in our community’s DNA."

“That’s one of the things that I think is neat and cool about La Crosse’s history is the fact that we did actually have these two communities, and obviously they came together,” Kabat said.

While they came together, the rivalry remains among the older generation. Business leaders such as Sweet Shop operator Marty Dierson and Carrier Insurance’s Randy Eddy Sr. are quick to note the North Side’s independent identity, with Eddy unable to resist the chance to get a playful dig in at the South Side.

“We actually allowed South La Crosse to merge with us. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it,” Eddy joked.

La Crosse Common Council member Ryan Cornett, whose district sits in the middle of the North Side, describes his constituents as welcoming but tough.

“They have this tough exterior, and people don’t like outsiders,” Cornett said.

When he was campaigning, he realized pretty quickly that knocking on front doors wasn’t going to work.

“You ever try going to the front doors in the North Side? Nuh-uh, it’s the back door,” Cornett said. “They lock their front door, and they don’t answer it.”

Once he figured out he had to go to the back door, he learned that people on the North Side stick together.

“Once you get past that, once they know you, there are people who will really respect you, and it’s a good area,” Cornett said.

It doesn’t take much to learn that people can be incredibly friendly once they give you a chance. Jerry Swim, co-chairman of the Lower North Side Depot Neighborhood Association, has lived there 27 years and loves it. His neighbors are great, he said.

“There already, right now, is a really neat feel to the neighborhood,” Swim said. “It’s a nice area of town.”

Lipscombe, who is renovating 1217 Caledonia St. into a restaurant, has been amazed at how affable people have been.

“I meet someone almost every day who stops by and welcomes me to the neighborhood,” Lipscombe said.

Enduring stigma

However, there is a bit of a stigma to La Crosse’s North Side.

Rumor has it a hub of criminal activity, and the city has assigned two of the La Crosse Police Department’s neighborhood resource officers to combat the perceived problem.

“We have our issues on the North Side,” Cornett said, citing some troubles with drugs and absentee landlords. “You have that everywhere in every community.

“They talk negative about it. I walk around my neighborhood at night, and I don’t feel in danger,” he added.

Even those who don’t buy into its reputation for crime don’t see it as a hub of community activity.

“They say, ‘It’s a place that used to be alive but right now is asleep,’” Roush said.

Roush said he challenges that attitude, but he knows it persists. He and his wife Mandy got a lot of push-back in 2011, when they opened Root Down Yoga in the heart of Caledonia Street. But, having worked down there for years, “I knew it was a safe block and had lots going on,” he said.

'Old Towne North’

The area’s businesses have a long history of investing in their community. Eddy recalled how the name “Old Towne North” was born, back when he was president of the Caledonia Street Merchants Association.

Eddy and his civic-minded colleagues paid $1,800 per building for a historic impact study on the 1200 block’s 12 buildings in 1991.

“We knew if we didn’t do something, we were going to be in a bad way,” Eddy said.

With some help from the city of La Crosse, the group of business owners built the identity of Old Towne North and embraced the block as a home for antiques and those with a love for history, despite the challenges in getting the word out.

“There were people who didn’t even know where Caledonia Street was,” Eddy said.

The Antique Mall had more than 60 dealers working out of it and drew antiquing enthusiasts and other dealers from across the country. At the same time, they invested in street and sidewalk improvements, adding period-lighting, wooden benches engraved with the block’s name and a building directory off the parking lot.

“We were very successful doing so,” Eddy said. “We developed a nest for people who were looking for that unique item.”

However, as the market for antiques shifted online, the street saw a bit of an economic downturn. While the planters running the block have been taken care of, the building directory now consists of a stained corkboard with a pair of business cards pinned to it and the brick in front of it has been heaved by the tree roots on either side.

When Kabat worked in the city’s planning department, city officials reached out the business leaders to include the area in the city’s master plan, recognizing its potential as a hot spot, suggesting it be part of a mini-Main Street program, like the one that has proven successful downtown.

“Caledonia Street is important, not only for the North Side, but in the larger region,” Kabat said. “It’s definitely a center of business, and it’s got that great history of being kind of the North Side’s downtown, if you will.”

However, they weren’t able to get any momentum, despite support from the business owners.

Rebounding

Then, in 2011, a rebound started organically with the opening of La Crosse’s hot yoga spot, which started a bit of a stir.

“We brought something to that neighborhood they hadn’t seen before,” Roush said.

The business affected everyone on the block, bringing in people of all ages and races to peruse the music stores, Sweet Shop and other businesses.

Among them is Anne Blaylock, who had never been to Caledonia Street before starting prenatal yoga last spring. A resident of La Crosse’s South Side, she was more prone to checking out downtown events than anything on the North Side.

“I started doing yoga at Root Down last year, but I hadn’t realized all the great stuff they have over here,” Blaylock said.

Now she’s a regular visitor, coming at least once a week to take her 4-year-old son Harper to Bebop & Bundles’ Music Together program down the road from Root Down.

“It’s made me come to other things over here,” Blaylock said. “Just last week we went to Pogreba’s Restaurant for dinner.”

She continues to be a regular downtown, particularly at The Pump House, but with the whole Coulee Region growing and changing, she likes the chance to check out different neighborhoods.

“It’s always nice to check out different areas of the city. Every area has a different feel to it,” Blaylock said.

In the past five years, there have been a number of newcomers, not just Bebop & Bundles, which moved there last year after operating in The Pump House on King Street, but also businesses such as Savory Creations and Old Towne Strings, which opened in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Old Towne Strings owner Ty Striebel opened his instrument-repair business across the street from Root Down Yoga after being a resident of La Crosse’s North Side for 15 years, thinking the area could use some more business and it’d be a convenient location for both him and his customers.

“It kind of just fell into place. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I needed someplace to do repairs that wasn’t my basement,” Striebel said.

Since then, he has watched the storefronts change.

“There is only a spot or two open now,” he said. “It seems like everything is filling up.”

It’s not just Striebel noticing. La Crosse Loggers owner Dan Kapanke noted that the area is changing as new businesses come into the North Side, bringing in a wider mix of clientele.

“There’s the perception that we have empty storefronts,” Kapanke said. “We have to overcome that. We have to overcome that there hasn’t been a lot of activity there.”

As a longtime employer on the North Side, he can say for sure that isn’t true. Only three area storefronts are empty, with two of those having businesses planned to open soon, including Lipscombe’s farm-to-table café.

“There are a lot of good things to say about North La Crosse, and the businesses will lead the charge as we redevelop,” Kapanke said.

City investment

While the businesses are leading, the city is following suit, chipping in $5,000 to the grassroots rebranding fundraiser.

“It’s an area that is just ripe for a renaissance,” Kabat said. “It is a place where you’ve got some very strong destinations that people really want to visit and if you can build upon that, you can really grow what’s going on there.”

The city is putting money into floodplain relief, housing replacement and a new gateway to the city as part of the Interstate-90 Exit 3 area reconstruction. Caledonia Street is within the scope of the Hwy. 53 master planning process the city began this spring, and the city invested $375,000 in neighborhood-driven projects in 2016.

“We don’t want people to just bypass North La Crosse and go straight to downtown,” said Cornett, who chairs the committee overseeing the Hwy. 53 plan. “There is a bustling community on the north end where you really don’t need to leave.”

With urban shopping, a grocery store not too far away and quality housing, Cornett believes it’ll be a draw to millennials. 

Uptowne

Roush, Lipscombe and Londre believe it’ll be a draw to people of all ages, not to mention businesses.

“It was a great place to start,” Roush said. When people invest in the center, it “pulses out into the neighborhoods around it.”

He added that the area is “open to discovery and people just need a reason to show up.”

Londre agreed, saying that, despite being a La Crosse resident since he was 9, the first time he visited was just a couple years ago. Now that he has, he’s as passionate about Caledonia Street as the rest of La Crosse.

“Most people don’t know this fabulous place is here,” Londre said.

Londre sees the “Uptowne” brand as a unifying effort.

“We’re all just a part of La Crosse,” Londre said. “This is not North Side’s downtown. This is everybody’s Uptowne.”

In that spirit of inclusiveness, the summit is open to everyone — even people who live downtown or even Onalaska.

“It allows them to have that ownership and inclusivity that comes with it and lets people drive their own bus,” Roush said.

The area has embraced Roush’s efforts, raising $22,000 on kickstarter to fund the summit.

“We don’t want people to just bypass North La Crosse and go straight to downtown. There is a bustling community on the north end where you really don’t need to leave.”

Ryan Cornett, La Crosse Common Council member

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