Downtown Oconomowoc renewal is evident
Downtown Oconomowoc is waking up as a result of the community's efforts to revitalize the area and re-create it as a social destination.
In an interview with the Focus last September, Mayor Maury Sullivan said the time is now to establish a new identity in Oconomowoc to become a bigger and better in the commerce and retail markets. "You go through time periods. It (downtown) was vibrant, and then it waned, and now, I think there is a new and different economical, social and demographic group trying to renew downtown," Sullivan said last year.
That group undertaking the downtown revival is a patchwork of merchants, building owners and support groups such as the Oconomowoc Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Oconomowoc Merchants Association (DOMA).
DOMA formed to organize and support efforts to help businesses stay afloat during the road reconstruction project. Since its inception, DOMA, 163 E. Wisconsin Ave., has created its own Web site, downtownoconomowoc.org that is a go-to point for business and event listings. The nonprofit group has adopted annual events Maxwell Street Days, Gallery Night and Sounds of Oconomowoc. It has also introduced a new event of its own: The Oconomowoc Sunday Artisan Faire debuted last weekend. Doggy Bag owner Erick Eck said the inaugural event was a great success.
"It was quite busy down here," Eck said of the turnout. The outdoor fair is juried with the intent to bring higher-end art to the event. Eck said that having it on Sunday will hopefully attract people "meandering" toward home who might want to stop for a bite to eat or some shopping; the next fair will be June 21.
Hammers have been swinging at several storefronts. Sherper's just completed a facade improvement that was partially funded by the Waukesha County Development Block Grant, a program meant to encourage building owners to improve their building facades. Risk and Insurance Services Consulting LLC, 158 E. Wisconsin Ave., has also started its approved facade improvements.
Nick Kerzner, who owns Oconomowoc Frame and Gallery, was outside the business Tuesday sweeping up to help the crew removing the old facade. Kerzner was approved for his facade grant last year and plans to preserve the building front's old brick. said he also has plans for the vacant building next door he also owns, which also received grant money. Kerzner said he wants to turn the former real estate office at 153 E. Wisconsin Ave. into a high-class bar. He said he already owns the liquor license and plans to reduce the front of the building so it doesn't jut out in the street as far and can then accommodate outdoor seating. Kerzner said he thinks a bar similar to Piano Blu in Pewaukee would be a nice fit for Wisconsin Avenue, which, he said, isn't currently host to such a place. He said it should do well because of the high visibility the location offers.
Four new businesses have opened downtown this year. Kristy Zingsheim has turned the former Jamie Wilke Interiors at 203 E. Wisconsin Ave. into a place to shop for wedding gowns and accessories and a one-stop shop for fresh flowers. Zingsheim opened the Betrothed … Your Special Day Boutique last week and said foot traffic is slowly picking up. The store includes large dressing rooms and cozy waiting areas for friends and family.
She said the flower store can be used for any occasion, from funerals to a special occasion for a loved one. And Zingsheim still has room to expand; she plans to carry prom formalwear next year, she said Tuesday.
Isabella's Fashions, 175-183 E. Wisconsin Ave., in the Avenue Square Mall, opened last month, and owner Theresa Perez said the business provides a place for mothers to shop for children's clothing other than a big box store. Perez, who also owns and operates Amalia's Family Restaurant with her husband, Manuel, wants to do her part to bring more traffic to the area and help support her fellow merchants by filling a building vacancy.
"From what I hear, Oconomowoc used to be a neat shopping community," Perez said in a past interview.
Splash Martini Bar, 134 W. Main St., opened May 5, and is a new place to sip a tasty concoction with fresh-squeezed fruit juices. Owner Dick and Susan Reinert own the building and opened the bar, taking advantage of an available liquor license and also to offer patrons a place to sip, sit back and enjoy the view of Lac La Belle from the deck they added to the building.
Rich and Julie Allen bought the building at 141 E. Wisconsin Ave. and are finishing a renovation of the historic property to house their business, Allen Executive Search.
Work still to do
Larger projects to restore and improve Oconomowoc's image are still in the works, one being the Fowler lake waterfront. Representatives from Hitchcock Design Group, the firm the city hired to conduct a downtown waterfront and parking solutions plan presented its master plan to the Common Council on May 5.
The group has evaluated opportunities and retail capabilities of the downtown area. Largely identified in the plan is the need to create a public/private downtown partnership of Oconomowoc stakeholders to continue to drive outreach, marketing, development and improvements for the area.
In tandem with the Fowler Lake project is the city's efforts to rework its methods to attract businesses.
In March, Community Development Authority member Florence Whalen said, "We need to remove unnecessary barriers to promote downtown and attract people."
Bob Duffy, director of economic development, said the city is working on redrafting ordinances for conditional-use permits and checklists for new businesses.
Stapleton said now that the infrastructure is in place downtown, and the area is poised to do something, the city has to be a part of the scheme.
"We have to reach out and sell Oconomowoc and let people know how great we are, and once they're interested, we have to put out the welcome mat to help them," she said.
Stapleton said last summer's construction, dovetailed with the failing economy, has hurt businesses, and she foresees more store closings before things start to get better.
"We're in competition with a lot of cities," Stapleton pointed out. "We have to do something creative and visionary."
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