Downtown Kenosha on the cusp of revitalization

Real Estate

The 5th Avenue Lofts are being built by Bear Real Estate Group and will open in February 2016.

In recent years, business news about Kenosha County has typically focused on the growth along I-94. Not surprising – it has been impressive. Inc. built a $250 million distribution center on 165 acres just east of the interstate and hired more than 1,000 people.

Pleasant Prairie-based Uline has been rapidly expanding as well. The company is building a second 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center at its corporate headquarters campus in Pleasant Prairie, and plans to build a new 298,000-square-foot office building there and a 60,000-square-foot office building and a 1 million-square-foot distribution center on a site in Kenosha.

LakeView Corporate Park in Pleasant Prairie, located along Highway 165 about two miles east of I-94, has attracted several businesses, including some that have moved north from Illinois. Pleasant Prairie has also attracted numerous additional residential and retail developments.

Consequently, Pleasant Prairie has become home to thousands of Illinois transplants who are finding Wisconsin’s housing prices more desirable than those in Lake County, Ill.

With so much attention given to developments near I-94 in Kenosha County, many of its newer residents – and even lifelong southeastern Wisconsin inhabitants – might not realize is there has also been revitalization seven miles east of I-94 in downtown Kenosha.

“There is no question about it; I have friends who live in the greater Kenosha area who have never been downtown – that’s not a good thing and it’s not a bad thing, it’s just an anecdote I see in multiple instances,” said Todd Battle, president of the Kenosha Area Business Alliance.

Granted, the changes in downtown Kenosha have been slow. And as Battle puts it, “a few steps forward and a few steps back” over the last few, ahem… decades. But in recent years, the unoccupied store fronts in downtown Kenosha have started to disappear.

During the summer of 2015, Downtown Kenosha Inc., a nonprofit revitalization organization, embarked on a downtown commercial building inventory over the course of three months. The results were promising.

 Eleven of the 152 downtown buildings in Kenosha are vacant, according to Downtown Kenosha Inc.
Eleven of the 152 downtown buildings in Kenosha are vacant, according to Downtown Kenosha Inc.

Of the 152 downtown buildings (1.3 million square feet) inventoried, the group found 11 buildings were vacant. Of those 11, seven of the buildings account for 11.5 percent (150,809 square feet) of total downtown vacancy. All seven of those buildings are located in a three-block radius around 58th Street.

Three of the seven buildings have proposals from interested developers, which would account for 47,133-square-feet, said Christopher Naumann, executive director of Downtown Kenosha Inc.

Gorman & Co. Inc. has been trying to turn Heritage House into a boutique hotel for several years.
Gorman & Co. Inc. has been trying to turn Heritage House into a boutique hotel for several years.

One of those proposals is for the Heritage House Inn building, a 100-year-old 27,000-square-foot dilapidated building at 5706 Eighth Ave., that Gorman & Company Inc. of Oregon, Wis., has been trying to turn into a boutique hotel for several years. But it has been unable to secure financing.

Ted Matkom, Wisconsin market president at Gorman & Company, said he should know within 30 days if the project will move forward. He believes the company is close to a deal and could get started in the first quarter of 2016.

If it does move forward, the Heritage House space will be turned into an 80-room boutique hotel with an extensive ballroom and bar that Matkom hopes will be a focal point of downtown Kenosha.

“We think it’s an amazing location and something the downtown desperately needs to attract and retain employers and people in general,” Matkom said. “There is a lot of potential there – it’s slow, but it’s happening. The momentum is there.”

Naumann said the city is also talking to David Nankin with Legacy Property Management Services LLC in Highland Park, Ill. about converting the former Kenosha YMCA/Kenosha Youth Foundation building into a 40- to 60-unit apartment building. The four-and-a-half story building opened in 1930 and has been closed since 2009.

“I think over the next 18 months we might be able to get something to pop there, but like with every other project, there are financing issues,” Naumann said. “We’re trying to get tax credits and working to help him.”

Greetings from Kenosha.
Greetings from Kenosha.

One of the bright spots of downtown Kenosha is residential, which actually began in 1988, when the American Motors Corp. shut down and cleanup began of nearly 70 acres along Lake Michigan.

Over the next two decades, the former brownfield and industrial site was redeveloped. The property, now called Kenosha Harbor Park, was sold to the city in 1994.

Today, Harbor Park has a mix of townhomes, condos and apartments and is the home of the Kenosha Public Museum, an electric street car system, the Civil War Museum and the Kenosha HarborMarket.

The 5th Avenue Lofts are being built by Bear Real Estate Group and will open in February 2016.
The 5th Avenue Lofts are being built by Bear Real Estate Group and will open in February 2016.

The 5th Avenue Lofts at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street is currently under construction by Bear Real Estate Group. The 60-unit apartment complex was financed with low-income housing credits, brownfield grants and tax incremental financing. The first phase is slated to open in February 2016, and a second phase is planned that will include another 40 apartments.

Naumann believes the development will be another turning point for downtown. The new units will also alleviate some of the housing pressure that is being felt with all of the new job creation near the interstate, Naumann said.

“There is still a little bit a cynicism from people regarding downtown,” Naumann said. “But getting 5th Avenue and seeing that it is a success will lead to more activity downtown. Having 100 new units downtown in the next 18 months will be a confidence booster.”

Mangia Wine Bar is one of the oldest restaurants in downtown Kenosha.
Mangia Wine Bar is one of the oldest restaurants in downtown Kenosha.

Tre Mantuano has watched Kenosha transform from his post as restaurant manager of Mangia Wine Bar, 5717 Sheridan Road, which has been open since 1988.

He said he is encouraged by the new retail and restaurants that are opening downtown, including The Buzz Café, which opened Oct. 15 as an extension of the existing Sazzy B’s restaurant, Mike’s Chicken & Donut Bar and the PUBLIC Craft Brewing Co.

“The food scene is really picking up downtown; there is a lot more foot traffic than there used to be,” Mantuano said. “A big part of getting people downtown is getting them to realize all the great things we have to offer. You can shop, grab a bite for lunch, stop at a museum, have a glass of wine somewhere and have dinner somewhere else.”

Wine Knot Bar & Bistro opened in 2004 as Kenosha’s first wine bar and profits have increased annually.

Brian Haberski, general manager and executive chef at Wine Knot Bar & Bistro, which says it was Kenosha’s first wine bar when it opened in 2004 at 5611 Sixth Ave., believes downtown Kenosha is on the cusp of complete revitalization.

Haberski has seen his profits increase 10 to 20 percent each year.

“I think small business owners with vision are coming down here willing to invest and open something new,” Haberski said. “Almost 40 percent of our customers come from 30 miles or more away and the majority are from Illinois. If more locals came down, they would be surprised what’s going on here.”

Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman said if the city can continue to get more residential development downtown, then Kenosha is heading in the right direction.

“That will encourage more businesses to locate downtown and make it a place where people want to be,” Bosman said. “I can tell you finding parking on a Tuesday in February didn’t use to be an issue. Now, it can be. We’re in a way better place than we were 10 years ago.”

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