Beyond the smiley barn

In an era in which Main Street America is being ravaged by big-box retailers and outlying strip malls, Robert Lang is almost single-handedly preserving and recreating downtown Delafield, brick by brick. Since 1988, Lang’s company, Lang Investments Ltd., has constructed 17 buildings in downtown Delafield and renovated two others. The architecture of those buildings is a throwback to the way Main Streets looked in many small American towns in the early 1900s.
Lang has spent more than $10 million on the buildings, which have about 350,000 square feet of space combined.
Now Lang is planning a project he says will become the centerpiece for the downtown area. He plans to build a four-story, 25-room inn at 601 Genesee St., replacing part of a strip mall.
The bed and breakfast will be unlike anything else in southeastern Wisconsin’s hospitality industry, combining small-town charm with upscale amenities, Lang said.
Lang also plans to renovate the rest of the strip mall, turning it into a three-story building with retail on the ground floor and offices and apartments on the upper two floors. The current tenants in the building, including Mark David’s Bakery and Café and Avant Garden Florist, will be invited to remain in the renovated structure.
The appearance of both the inn and the rebuilt strip mall will be the same turn-of-the-century American architecture Lang is so fond of. The architect for the project is Johnson Design Architects/Builders of Oconomowoc.
Plans for both buildings are preliminary and still must be approved by City of Delafield officials. If the approvals are granted and tenants are secured, construction on the buildings could begin this year, Lang said.
The new projects will be the latest in a long line of improvements Lang has made in downtown Delafield.
"He has done a tremendous job for our city," said Delafield Mayor Paul Craig. "He took what was a rather traditional downtown and turned it into a pretty spectacular downtown."
Before Lang began building there, Delafield’s downtown was, "pretty quiet looking," said Mary Daniel, president of the historical society for the Hawk’s Inn, a Delafield museum. Today, she says, downtown Delafield is alive again.
"It’s charming. It’s small town," Daniel said. "It’s walkable, very definitely a destination for people to come to. It has been very positive. (Lang) obviously believes in Delafield."
The modest Lang is reluctant to talk about himself and relishes his privacy, even to the point that he prefers not to allow publications to photograph him. Lang says many other Delafield residents have contributed to revitalizing the city’s downtown.
"Delafield is not just Bob Lang," he said. "This is not a one-person town. There are other people who have contributed. I don’t want any streets or parks named after me. That’s not the point."
However, Craig said Lang clearly has done more than anyone to inject new life into the city’s downtown.
"I respect him, I truly do," Craig said.
"(Lang’s impact) has been huge, and it’s been positive," said Tom Aul, owner of Aul Real Estate Investments LLC, which has renovated some buildings in downtown Delafield. "I can’t say enough about Bob. He’s done a great job. He’s made Delafield a unique and wonderful place."
Another major project for Lang Investments this year is finding office tenants for three downtown buildings that The Lang Companies, which Lang also owns, have used for storage. The storage of The Lang Companies products, which include candles and calendars, is being shifted to a distribution center in Hartland.
Those three Delafield buildings have a total of 160,000 square feet of space. The buildings have a similar turn-of-the century architectural theme Lang has used on his other downtown properties and could become an identifying symbol for the future corporate occupants, said Rob Gerbitz, chief operating officer for Lang Investments.
"Those that want a signature property where the building itself will become part of the company (image)," Gerbitz said. "It’s really the identity of the company, not just a place for their office."
The cost to lease The Lang Companies space will range from $18 to $20 per square foot, according to John Czarnecki, vice president of Apex Commercial, Inc., a real estate broker for Lang Investments.
Lang owns dozens of other buildings in downtown Delafield and several other properties, including an 11-acre site behind Town Bank, originally Delafield State Bank, which Lang helped form.
He also owns 45 acres southeast of the Interstate 94 and Highway C interchange. Lang’s long-range plan for that land is to build more of the old-fashioned Main Street style of development he has done downtown. The other three corners of the interchange are occupied by a school, a cemetery and a state park and are protected from development.
Lang was born in Indiana and grew up in Danville, Ill. A former teacher, he began building homes in the mid-1970s and founded The Lang Companies in the early 1980s.
Lang has a passion for traditional American downtowns, many of which have struggled as shoppers flocked to malls and big-box stores built with large parking lots near busy roads.
Delafield was no different. Since the late 1980s, several large retailers have sprung up near Highway 83 and I-94, including Kohl’s, Wal-Mart and Target. Lang said he knew in the late 1980s that large retail development was on its way to Delafield, and he wanted to invest in downtown to preserve and revitalize the heart and soul of the small city.
"He doesn’t like urban sprawl," Gerbitz said. "He likes to go into communities and regentrify them, to create places not only that people will want to live in but also will want to visit."
"I have been very much influenced by small towns in middle America," Lang said. "I believe my responsibility is to contribute to the community by taking care of the land that I own. I am very positive about the community of Delafield."
Lang’s development philosophy is similar to the New Urbanism approach of former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. Both advocate compact, pedestrian-friendly downtown areas with a mixture of housing, retail, offices and restaurants. Lang strives to create developments that raise property values and encourage more people to live, work and visit the downtown to support downtown businesses.
A key to attracting businesses and visitors downtown is the quality of the architecture, Lang said.
"I believe it’s the buildings that make the downtown," Lang said. "I’ve tried to build the highest-quality, traditional style buildings."
"They’re wonderful brick buildings that will stand the test of time," Daniel said. "The buildings he either builds or refurbishes are of unbelievable quality. It’s a great addition to Delafield."
"Delafield’s charming and quaint downtown has been enhanced by Mr. Lang’s architectural influence," said Corlis McKitrick, executive director of the Delafield Promotional and Tourism Council. "Buildings inspired by traditional designs, Greek Revival, Victorian and Williamsburg style architecture surround you."
Lang’s long-range plans include more residential development downtown to provide more people within walking distance of downtown businesses.
To many Milwaukee-area residents, downtown Delafield is a sleepy burg on the other side of what was known for years as the "smiley barn exit" off of I-94.
However, Delafield’s population grew from 5,347 to 6,472 during the 1990s, an increase of about 21%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Western Waukesha County’s growth is continuing. The massive Pabst Farms commercial and residential development in nearby Oconomowoc is the most noteworthy example of that growth and will bring more retailers that could compete with downtown Delafield businesses.
Still, Pabst Farms will also benefit downtown Delafield by providing more potential customers for downtown businesses, Czarnecki said.
"Pabst Farms will just bring more people living in the area," he said.
Delafield and the rest of western Waukesha County is becoming more attractive for development as more people realize it is only 30 minutes from downtown Milwaukee and less than an hour to Madison, Czarnecki said. Delafield’s location on Lake Nagawicka also is a draw.
"(Development) continues to spread to the west," he said. "People are going to realize this isn’t that far away."

Feb. 6, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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