Editor’s note: This is the second part of a six-part series on the economy. The first part appeared Sunday.
Not too long ago, taking a stroll through downtown Kenosha might have given one the impression that this city by the lake was fast becoming a ghost town.
With a growing number of vacant buildings, business owners who are longtime mainstays may have wondered if they ever would get new neighbors.
That has started to happen. Kenosha’s downtown has begun to attract new businesses thanks in part to Downtown Kenosha Inc., an organization put into place last year to fill the empty buildings with new business and residential tenants and owners. Heading that organization is executive director Violet Ricker, an experienced leader of downtown urban development.
According to Downtown Kenosha Inc.’s records, 11 new businesses moved into the heart of downtown in 2013, primarily along Sixth Avenue, between 52nd and 59th streets. To promote additional development, a market analysis has been launched to determine what other types of businesses would be a good fit downtown.
And Downtown Kenosha is developing metrics now to measure progress over the year. Efforts will include tracking the number of residents, the number of employees, and vacancy rates.
If 2013 was a successful year with an influx of new businesses and residents, then 2014 is expected to be even better because of business development programs and financing that has been put into place. Ricker, who lives downtown herself, is optimistic.
Among Downtown Kenosha’s missions: give people more things to see and do, be it shopping, dining or something more.
“Our goal is to make downtown cool, to make everybody recognize that downtown is as cool as I think it is and as cool as the business owners here think it is,” Ricker said.
And what makes a downtown cool?
“A lot of it is having things to do all the time,” Ricker explained. “What we want to do is grow the number of amenities that our residents and visitors have open to them down here. We want to make sure if they’re hungry, they have a restaurant that has something they want to eat. If they’re shopping and looking for a particular type of product, we’ve got a store that carries it.”
In addition to those more basic needs, specialty stores are important, too.
“That’s a lot of what we already do have downtown,” Ricker added. “We have incredibly unique retailers, a lot of things that you can only get in downtown Kenosha — some real specialty shops. I would absolutely encourage everybody to come down here and take a look at them for themselves.”
Efforts to attract new customers include expanding Second Saturday deals, entertainment and promotional events in 2014.
Ricker believes additional growth will come because of partnerships with other organizations in the city. Through joint efforts, prospective business owners can get help negotiating leases or sales with property owners, and they may obtain assistance from a revolving loan fund.
Already 2014 is starting to bloom with new growth. In the Harborside neighborhood, for example, Matt Berg, the owner of Matt’s Main Street Pub, 5706 Sixth Ave., has opened Saddlehorns Saloon, a country-themed bar at 5010 Seventh Ave. Soon to come, a new coffee shop and a hair salon along with two other businesses.
As for the 2014 forecast, Ricker sees promise with events expanding and new businesses coming in.
“I like to say that we can think of downtown as everybody’s neighborhood,” she said. “We encourage consumers and visitors from across the city, across the county and across the region to come and spend time in downtown Kenosha. “
Downtown Kenosha Inc. executive director
Before beginning work in Kenosha, Ricker served as the executive director of Waukegan Main Street for three years. She has extensive training in the Main Street program approach of economic development through historic preservation.
Ricker has a bachelor’s degree in non-profit management from North Park University and is working toward an economic developer certification through the International Economic Development Council. She also holds a certificate in the Principles and Practices of New Urbanism, a community development practice encouraging smart growth, walkability and public involvement in neighborhood place-making.
Ricker lives downtown on Sixth Avenue and enjoys walking to work.
Tuesday: Lou Molitor, executive director of the Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce.