These days, visitors often stop by Tami Evanoff’s shop just to talk.
Burlap & Lace Marketplace has for years enjoyed the support of loyal customers and captured the casual foot traffic in downtown Waukesha, its window display of local handcrafted and vintage items drawing in passersby.
In the weeks and months following the Nov. 21 massacre of Christmas parade marchers on Main Street, the boutique at 272 W. Main St. is where many patrons have chosen to stop when returning to the site of the traumatic scene.
“Every day,” said Evanoff, owner of Burlap & Lace. “Every day, I get people in that were victims. It’s their first time back downtown, and they come here. We sheltered a lot of people that night. So, we see those people often coming in. A lot of times people just want to come in and talk. And I’m fine with that because that’s been really good for me, too.”
Evanoff recalls how events unfolded in the early evening on the day of the parade. She was preparing to walk out the store’s front door to join the festivities when her daughter rushed in as mayhem broke out on the street.
People were screaming and crying, panicked after hearing the sound of gunshots, later confirmed to be when a police officer opened fire in an attempt to stop the SUV that plowed into parade marchers.
“I just propped the door and said, ‘Get inside, get inside, go to the back of the store.’ I had two employees in here with me, so I stayed (near the front of the store) and the other two guided people to the back of the store. When they said shots were fired, more people piled in. We took them to the way back of the store and did whatever we could for them. We were just there to comfort them.”
Having provided an immediate refuge that day, Burlap & Lace today serves as an ongoing respite for locals attempting to process the profound – and, for many, still incomprehensible – tragedy that claimed the lives of six people (ranging in age of 8 to 81) and injured dozens, some severely. After the incident, police arrested 39-year-old Darrell Brooks, the alleged driver of the SUV, who now faces six charges of first-degree intentional homicide and dozens of additional charges.
“When you think of the hundreds of thousands of cities in our country and the millions of cities around the world, why Waukesha?’” said Jerry Couri, president of Couri Insurance Agency in the city’s downtown.
Many continue to ask similar questions, and the downtown business community faces others: How do you draw visitors back to the site of what was a horrific scene witnessed by many? And how does a community move forward after an event that’s altered its history, while not letting that event define its future?
“It’s still very much on everyone’s mind. Where things go from here – we’re still navigating that part of it,” said Chris Janet, president of the Downtown Waukesha Business Association and an agent with State Farm Insurance and Financial Services. “You can’t undo the parade. … For everyone down here, it’s interwoven into everyone’s fabric now.”[caption id="attachment_546320" align="alignnone" width="1280"] On a cold and windy night, a man relights candles at a memorial set up at the corner of Clinton and Main streets in Waukesha.
‘People need people’
In immediate response to the parade violence, downtown businesses were among those on the front line, triaging and providing shelter.
Within days, their attention turned to supporting victims monetarily and providing spaces for the community to process the tragedy. The Waukesha Downtown Business Association sprinted to produce “Waukesha Strong” T-shirts, which funneled tens of thousands of dollars to the United for Waukesha Community Fund. Shops distributed free blue light bulbs for residents to install at their homes as a symbol of unity in the parade’s wake.
“I heard from businesses that I had never heard from,” Janet said. “There was more community outreach and people asking, ‘What can I do to help? What can we do to support the community?’ It intensified the strength within the community that was already there.”
Rhonda Schmidt, executive director of the Waukesha Civic Theatre, said business leaders in particular leaned on one another.
“In the weeks and months following the parade tragedy, the neighborhood became even more of a neighborhood,” she said. “Our neighbors are really important to us. I remember coming into Burlap & Lace, and Tami and I hugging and holding each other because we’re healing. The same is true with the (Jest for Fun) Joke Shop and Martha Merrell’s (Books & Toys), and People’s Park. … The neighborhood is still hurting, but we’re healing together.”
As downtown businesses stepped up to support community members, the community reciprocated.
In one of the most visible displays of solidarity, shoppers returned to downtown to patronize local shops less than a week after the parade, on Small Business Saturday.
“Just about every retail store I talked to had giant numbers that day,” Janet said. “It was really busy. It was good to see.”
Customers waited in line for two hours at Burlap & Lace that day, wrapping from the register around the entire inside perimeter of the store, Evanoff said.
“People were kind. They were patient,” she said. “They were … it was overwhelming. It still is. One guy who was in line told jokes the whole time. It was light. It wasn’t heavy. I walked around and cried most of the day, I was so overwhelmed.”
Shoppers were particularly motivated by downtown businesses’ commitment to redirecting some of their profits to support parade victims, Janet said. Proceeds were largely channeled through the United for Waukesha Community Fund, administered by the Waukesha County Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.[gallery columns="1" size="full" td_select_gallery_slide="slide" ids="546319,546317"]
Of the 15,000 donors who contributed to the fund, 600 of the gifts were from corporate and business donors.
“We are so grateful to the corporate community for their support of those impacted by the parade,” said Melissa Baxter, president of the Waukesha County Community Foundation. “Many businesses reached out immediately and were heavily involved in the generous outpouring of gifts to the United for Waukesha Community Fund.”
Recently, the fund’s committee announced it would disburse the $6 million raised over four months to 560 individuals affected by the attack. The families of the six people who died in the attack are to receive $200,000 each; the 29 people who were hospitalized and applied for funds will receive a combined $2.5 million. Another $408,000 will be disbursed to 37 people who received outpatient treatment for their injuries, and $1.7 million will be shared among nearly 500 people who were physically present at the parade as participants, spectators and first responders. Wisconsin Hero Outdoors, Family Service of Waukesha and Catholic Memorial High School, organizations that are each providing mental health services to victims, will receive a total of $59,400.
“The horrific events of last November will be with our community forever, but as this incredible outpouring of support has illustrated, it will never define our city,” Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said in the disbursement announcement. “Instead, our identity is rooted in an unshakeable commitment to come together and help one another, even in the most inconceivable circumstances, and I am truly grateful for how many people have joined us in that unity.”
Since the parade, every time the business community has been faced with the question of whether to move forward with pre-existing plans for community events in the downtown, the overwhelming response has been “yes,” Janet said.
“People need people,” he said.
And downtown businesses continue to create reasons to gather. In December, People’s Park owner Dan Taylor spearheaded a lantern stroll, in which dozens of people walked through the city carrying lanterns as a symbol of hope. In late March, Martha Merrell’s hosted “A Day of Healing” in partnership with Burlap & Lace, another event designed to bring people downtown – especially parade participants, first responders and spectators. Raffle ticket sales were directed to the fund for a planned permanent parade memorial.
“The city, with intention, keeps going,” Schmidt said.
As recently as five years ago, downtown Waukesha’s business community had fewer members than it does today.
One in five commercial spaces in the city’s center was vacant, arteries off of Main Street didn’t see much foot traffic, and road construction projects regularly disrupted anchor businesses’ operations. Combined with the city’s reputation for having a confusing street grid and its difficult-to-navigate Five Points intersection, the downtown wasn’t capturing its $100 million retail and dining spending potential, according to a downtown Waukesha market analysis conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Seeking to bring in more visitors, city leaders made a concerted effort to lean into the downtown’s strengths, including its historic limestone buildings, distinctive shops, proximity to the Fox River and well-established community events, like Friday Night Live and JanBoree winter festival. A rebranding effort in 2016 helped the downtown better market its eclectic mix of local restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, antique malls and bookstores. Known by locals for being a little quirky, the downtown community gained a new lexicon to describe itself – “charming,” “delightful,” “trendy” – along with a new logo that now appears on banners and wayfinding signs, thanks to the campaign.
Those efforts began paying off. Prior to the pandemic, activity picked up with the rise of new residential developments and the entrance of new small businesses.
“We’ve had downtown on a pretty nice trajectory,” Janet said. “Storefronts have been filling up, especially from five to 10 years ago, when it was a very different scene down here. We have healthy cornerstone businesses that are constant draws, and we’ve had some more coming in.”
Optimism for the future and a commitment to the downtown prompted Evanoff, who had managed Burlap & Lace since 2017, to buy the boutique from its out-of-state owner in June 2020 as COVID-19 threatened to upend the retail industry.
“People said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Evanoff recalled. “I said, ‘No. I know what a good business this is. People come down here to come to Burlap & Lace.’”
Customers proved their loyalty, with crowds lining up down the block outside Evanoff’s shop days before she planned to reopen after the state-mandated shutdown of nonessential businesses lifted during the initial stage of the pandemic.
“It’s been amazing ever since that day. We haven’t seen business slow down since,” Evanoff said.
For a downtown community that has seen progress in courting more people to its district, a traumatic community event on its main thoroughfare threatened to upend that momentum. Businesses could have kept their doors shuttered; residents could have chosen to stay away from Main Street. Yet many have found solace in continuing to convene in the city’s center, business leaders say.
Evanoff initially intended on closing up shop for a full week after the parade, but customers implored her to remain open.
“I just kept hearing from people, ‘You have to open, you have to open. People need it. People need to come down here. People need to talk,’” she said. “So, I opened, and it turned out to be the best thing for me as well. Being able to just talk helps a lot.”[caption id="attachment_546318" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Many downtown Waukesha businesses, including Mainstream Bar & Grill, lit up blue lights and passed out bulbs to community members as a sign of unity following the parade massacre.
The installation of a monument – or possibly multiple monuments – to honor the parade victims and memorialize the tragedy is seen by many as an important part of the community’s healing process.
Temporary tributes and makeshift memorials emerged after the parade, most visibly at Veterans Park on the west end of Main Street. But now, the 13-person Waukesha Parade Memorial Commission – a panel that includes downtown business leaders, educators, and close family members and friends of those who died in the massacre – is leading the effort to develop a landmark commemorating the tragedy permanently.
Couri is chair of the commission and expects to convene as many as 18 meetings over the next year to give space for people to process their experiences, offer input on the memorial and develop fundraising strategies to bring those plans to fruition.
He said he feels a duty to help preserve the memory of the lives lost.
“To try to push it away, that’s just not right,” Couri said. “We’re going to try to do something that allows a healing process.”
“No one knows what it’s going to do or how it’s going to go. And there’s really nothing we can draw from in past history. All we can do is try,” he added.
Still in the early stages of brainstorming design ideas, the commission contemplated during an early March meeting what it might look like to honor parade victims.
Dan Taylor of People’s Park suggested a memorial could involve planting trees for each of the six victims.
“Maybe for Jackson, we’d plant a little baby tree or a younger tree, and have a plaque that is very simple, listing the names of the people who were lost,” Taylor said, referring to eight-year-old Jackson Sparks, who died from injuries sustained while marching with his baseball team.
Another commission member, Taylor Smith, is the daughter of Jane Kulich, a Citizens Bank employee who was killed while marching in the parade representing the bank. Smith said her mother loved trees, flowers and gardening, so integrating those in the memorial would be appropriate.
“That resonates very deeply with me,” she said.
Discussion has also centered on where the future memorials should be installed: On the parade route? Or removed from the scene? How do you make a place for a memorial in honor of an event that was so out of place?
Commission members largely agree there should be a small memorial located on Main Street, with a larger memorial located elsewhere in the city. In late March, the panel unanimously agreed to move forward with Grede Park – a green area located adjacent to Veterans Park and southwest of the city’s center – as the site of a potential larger memorial.
Several ideas have been floated for the smaller Main Street memorial, including sculptures, plaques inset in pavement or specialty lighting installed in an alley near the Five Points intersection off of Main Street. In that same alley, a “Waukesha Strong” mural is in the works that would integrate six cardinals, flowers and butterflies, according to preliminary renderings.
Other possible memorial concepts involve using green space in front of various Main Street storefronts.
Jennifer Andrews, community development director for the city, acknowledged that a Main Street memorial could make it difficult for some to bring themselves downtown.
“That’s a place that could be a trigger for some people,” she said.
Some community members haven’t yet been able to return to the parade route.
“Everyone’s on different healing schedules,” Janet said. “It’s different if you were physically there and then bringing yourself back – it’s hard.”
Evanoff said she has been heartened by witnessing the resilience of victims.
“I’ve seen many of them come downtown,” she said. “Many of them come into this store. … I’m in awe of those people who have been able to say, ‘I’m going back down there.’”
Giving space for customers to process their grief and make their return to the downtown on their own timeline is all part of the process, Schmidt said.
“Having people be able to share their stories at their comfort level and to be able to replace painful memories with joyful ones, I think it is really important,” she said. “Because before the tragedy, joy was center stage. The experiences of going to restaurants, going into a shop, going to a show – those were the experiences of coming downtown. So, recovery is building more of those experiences that will help us all heal.”