Downtown Oconomowoc shows signs of recovery

The past few years have been devastating for business in downtown Oconomowoc.

First, the Pabst Farms development at Interstate 94 and Highway 67 brought new competition for the downtown.

Then a two-year-long road project to rebuild Wisconsin Avenue through downtown completely shut down the business district’s most important street to vehicular traffic. Businesses on the street struggled to survive and many shut their doors for good, leaving vacant storefronts behind.

“It was a hard time (during the road project), business was down,” said John Tadych, manager of Fiesta Cancun Mexican Restaurant and Cantina. “I think a lot of people just stayed away from the downtown area entirely. Our regulars kept us in business.”

But not all of the businesses that closed in downtown Oconomowoc did so as a result of the road construction project, said Laurel Whelan, president of the Downtown Oconomowoc Merchants Association (DOMA). Many of the businesses that closed had owners who were ready to retire, and decided to do so when the road project happened, she said.

“We lost a whole generation of businesses that were here for 15 years,” Whelan said.

Finally, in late 2008, just when the Wisconsin Avenue road project was finally complete, the U.S. economy plunged into the Great Recession, the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression, providing more stress for the downtown Oconomowoc business district.

Yet, despite the still weak economy, several entrepreneurs are bringing life to downtown Oconomowoc, opening new stores in many of the spaces that were vacated during the road construction project.

Businesses that have opened recently, or plan to open soon, in downtown Oconomowoc include:

  • Michael’s Italian Feast, which plans to open in the former Burger King restaurant building at 513 E. Wisconsin Ave.
  • Natural Health Center for Acupuncture and Wellness opened at 132 N. Main St.
  • Betrothed opened at 203 E. Wisconsin Ave.
  • Isabella’s Fashion opened at 183 E. Wisconsin Ave.
  • A.C. Troyer Gallery opened at 148 E. Wisconsin Ave.
  • Splash Martini Bar opened at 134 N. Main St.
  • La Belle Fashion, a women’s boutique, opened at 117 E. Wisconsin Ave. in June. Owner Sarah Bartlett plans to open another store, called OZ, in an 1,800-square-foot space next door at 119 E. Wisconsin Ave., in October for men’s and children’s apparel.
  • Fiesta Cancun Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, located at 159 E. Wisconsin Ave., plans to expand into an adjacent space at 157 E. Wisconsin Ave. As part of that project, half of the restaurant’s existing space will be converted into an area for outdoor dining.
  • In addition, some buildings have been improved, including the Sherper’s building at 225 E. Wisconsin Ave.

“Everything that is going on (with new businesses opening downtown) at this time, I think bodes well for the future,” said Lori Hake, vice president of Pewaukee-based commercial real estate brokerage Judson & Associates. An Oconomowoc resident, Hake has brokered some of the recent downtown Oconomowoc deals.

“There’s some new blood in Oconomowoc that wants to see it restored,” Hake said. “They’re making their own identity. A lot of (the retailers) are local people that love the community and would love to have more to do.”

One of the new downtown Oconomowoc entrepreneurs is Kristy Zingsheim, co-owner of Betrothed, a bridal boutique. She opened the business in a space that had been vacant for more than two years during the reconstruction of Wisconsin Avenue.

“We’re trying to rebuild (downtown Oconomowoc),” Zingsheim said. “We need more people to come down here. We need more eateries. I think we need things that bring the youth down here. They have money to spend, they don’t have any bills to pay.”

Betrothed has been open for about 16 months and is “doing O.K.,” Zingsheim said.

“I think if you can get into a niche business at the bottom and build it you have nowhere to go but up,” she said.

Downtown Oconomowoc would be one of the stops on the proposed high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. The state Department of Transportation estimates that about 50,000 riders will depart or arrive at the Oconomowoc station per year. That would add additional traffic to the downtown area. However, the controversial project could be derailed by Republican candidates for governor Scott Walker or Mark Neumann. Both have promised to cancel the high speed rail project if elected.

DOMA surveyed downtown businesses owners about the plans for a downtown train station. Two dozen supported it and only one declined to support it, Whelan said.

“Rail is a piece of the future at some point in time,” she said. “If it’s going to go through and the money has already been allocated, then it better stop here instead of passing by.”

Downtown Oconomowoc benefits from decent vehicular traffic on Wisconsin Avenue and Main Street. But traffic through the downtown was much higher before the Highway 16/67 bypass was built a few years ago, Whelan said. Traffic used to jam Wisconsin Avenue by motorists trying to get to and from Watertown on Highway 16.

But the reduction of traffic could be a good thing for downtown Oconomowoc, eliminating people passing through that had no plans of stopping to patronize downtown businesses and only contributed to downtown traffic jams.

“The lack of semi traffic is a huge asset to having the bypass in place,” Whelan said. However, she said it is hard to determine if the bypass has benefitted or hurt downtown businesses overall

The downtown area still has strong foot traffic, a major attraction for retailers, Hake said.

“Even when the road was torn up and a lot of stores were closing, people were still walking down here,” she said.

Although the Wisconsin Avenue project caused major problems for businesses on the street, the completion of the project has produced an attractive street including new sidewalks, decorative brick pavers, trees and other plants.

Downtown Oconomowoc’s other assets include a densely configured, pedestrian friendly lineup of historic buildings and a location within walking distance of Fowler Lake and Lac La Belle.

“It’s a beautiful downtown,” Hake said.

To help attract more businesses to the downtown area, the city and First Bank Financial Centre established a downtown Oconomowoc business loan pool. First Bank Financial Centre has committed $300,000 of capital to the loan pool. Eligible expenses for the loans include acquisition of property, building improvements, equipment purchases and environmental or safety compliance. The loans are generally $10,000 to $25,000 at a fixed 1 percent rate. Loan decisions are made by the Oconomowoc Community Development Authority. More information is available at (262) 569-2185.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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