Harbor transforms downtown Sheboygan

Downtown Sheboygan’s streets, with names such as Erie, Michigan and Niagara, reflect the city’s historic link as one of the Great Lakes’ top fishing ports.

Once known as a community that could sport four taverns on a corner and a church down the street, Sheboygan is now dovetailing a tourist destination into its downtown with expanding arts and entertainment.

“Sheboygan is a very good small town,” said Konrad Testwuide, who has lived in the community 74 years.

Testwuide has seen Sheboygan evolve since 1933 from a shipping and fishing town to a thriving harbor for tourists.

“There’s been a new direction with the development of the harbor, as hundreds of piles of coal and oil tanks have been replaced by a $54 million hotel, water park and conference center,” he said, referring to the Blue Harbor Resort.

Many say the Harbor Centre Marina, built in the mid-1990s, was the anchor Sheboygan needed to help drive additional development. The investment on the southern fringe of the downtown has slowly trickled north with a visible infusion of art and high-end restaurants.

“We’ve had a lot of growth with very high-caliber, more cosmopolitan eating establishments that have opened over the last several years,” said Delores Olsen, executive director of the Sheboygan Chamber of Commerce.

Olsen points to a growing list of fine restaurants downtown, including The Duke of Devon, an English pub on the lakefront, and Trattoria Stefano, an Italian restaurant on Eighth Street.

Olsen credits the high-end influx to a “cultural subculture” growing within the community.

Part of the subculture began emerging in 1996 as a newly-formed Theatre Foundation took responsibility of the Sheboygan Theater. The group was responsible for purchasing the 1928 building previously know for its Vaudeville showcase and transforming it into the $13 million Stefanie H. Weill Center.

The 1,100-seat theater features large white, glass chandeliers in the entryway. Red velvet seats line the atmospheric theater, which is done in the Spanish Moorish courtyard style and gives evokes feeling of sitting outdoors.

“You can see the constellations in the ceiling,” said the Weill Center’s Kim Meller, pointing to a blue sky with twinkling lights. “Originally that effect was done with a lightbulb and a fan, but now we do it with fiber optics.”

Over the past few years, the majestic theater has hosted performers such as the Oak Ridge Boys, Smothers Brothers, the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra and Marvin Hamlisch. Nearby, the Mead Public Library features an Art*o*mat, a recycled cigarette vending machine that dispenses original works of art from 10 countries for $5.

Along Eighth Avenue, 100-year-old buildings have been restored, and historic churches with small grottos have been well-maintained.

On the north end of the downtown is the famed John Michael Kohler Arts Center, featuring cutting-edge exhibits and a whimsical mix of Dr. Seuss and Salvadore Dali.

Another project awaiting federal approval is the community’s effort to transform its old armory, which used to house the world champion Sheboygan Redskins basketball team in the 1920s, into the Great Lakes Aerospace Science and Education Center.

“Sheboygan is striving to become a little more open to high technology and appeal to the younger population,” Olsen said. “And we’re doing that by making sure there’s an ongoing interest to have good theater, good arts and things for people to do that will keep them in the community.”

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