Hartford, a small bedroom community 45 minutes northwest of downtown Milwaukee, is the second-fastest growing municipality in Wisconsin.
Home to more than 60 industrial businesses, Hartford companies employ nearly 8,000 people – more than half of its population of 15,000.
But despite its workforce, the city experienced economic challenges following the Great Recession, with businesses migrating from the historic downtown core and an aging housing stock.
Over the past decade, Hartford’s major employers, which include Signicast LLC, Broan-NuTone LLC, Steel-Craft Corp. and a Quad/Graphics Inc. plant that employs more than 1,000 people, have asked the city to redevelop the downtown as a way to help them attract and retain employees.
“Employers were concerned about the lack of retail activity downtown and also the number of empty storefronts,” said Tom Hostad, executive director of the Hartford Area Development Corp. “Oftentimes when you are recruiting, there is also a spouse who is looking, as well.”
Three years ago, the city, HADC, Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce and The Historic Downtown Hartford Business Improvement District hired urban planners Vandewalle & Associates Inc. to conduct a downtown opportunity analysis.
The result has been two catalytic projects in downtown Hartford and more than 300 new apartment units either opened or planned within the past two years.
“For years the city has invested in downtown, so now this is the next step, to have a vibrant Main Street,” said Scott Henke, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce.
The city has spent approximately $60 million on civic amenities, including a $10 million library that opened in 2012 and a $7 million aquatic center that opened in 2016.
Hartford also helped to finance the Schauer Arts Center, which is housed in a former canning factory built in 1919. The regional arts center opened in 2001.
Doing so has landed Hartford on countless “best places” lists for the city’s quality of life.
Still, employers were asking for more.
“There were a lot of woes around being able to attract workforce, as the baby boomers are beginning to retire and will be replaced with younger workers,” Hostad said.
One of the first requests was a business hotel. In mid-June, Hartford’s first “catalytic project,” a downtown hotel, opened.
“We had a Super 8 and an AmericInn, but those types don’t resonate with the business traveler,” Hostad said. “We were not trying to put another hotel out of business, but we wanted to bring in something that didn’t exist.”
The Cobblestone Hotel & Suites is located off Highway 60, just blocks from North Main Street. The 60-room hotel features its own restaurant, Wissota Chophouse.
Cobblestone Hotels LLC is an upper-midscale hotel brand based in Neenah with more than 135 hotels in 18 states. The hotel was built by BriMark Builders LLC and is operated by WHG Companies LLC, both based in Neenah.
Before the Cobblestone opened, many business travelers stayed in West Bend or Menomonee Falls. Now guests can stay locally, eat at local restaurants and spend money locally, said Steve Volkert, Hartford city administrator.
Hiring younger workers also means needing a place for them to live.
In the past two years, Hartford has gotten its first multi-family developments, with 240 new units and another 74 planned.
The first three projects – Wilson Heights Apartments at 844 E. Loos St., Oriole Ponds Apartments at 400 Whistle Drive, and the Birch Crossing Apartments at 800 Liberty Ave. – each have about 88 units, Volkert said.
The buildings are renting as fast as developers can build them, with Birch Crossings planning additional phases, Volkert said.
A fourth apartment development at a vacant site on the north side of downtown, which the city is calling its “north bookend,” is expected to be Hartford’s second catalytic project.
The project, a four- and five-story, 74-unit apartment building at West State and North Main streets, is being developed by Brookfield-based Brayton Management Co. Inc.
The north bookend project was originally approved by the city council in May, although there have been several changes to the size, Volkert said.
Once construction does begin, a long-vacant site will be gone and city officials hope the development will create more activity downtown.
The retail vacancy rate of downtown Hartford is less than 15 percent, according to the Vandewalle & Associates study.
Walking down Main Street in Hartford, storefronts include Scoop Deville Ice Cream Shop, coffee shop Perc Place, gift shop The Local Collective and the well-known Mineshaft Restaurant.
The HADC and the chamber are now looking at some of the vacant storefronts as possible spaces for retail or restaurant incubators. They would also love to attract a craft brewery.
One of the vacant downtown buildings formerly housed a restaurant and still has a commercial kitchen. The chamber and HADC are working together to figure out a way to create a shared kitchen model so a food incubator could be started.
“We would love to see more restaurants downtown,” Henke said. “Even if we could park food trucks there. We’re throwing out all kinds of ideas.”
The group hopes once the north bookend is complete and more people are living downtown, retail and restaurants will follow.
Hartford residents Danny and Wendy Dulak have already begun to invest.
In October 2015, the couple began thinking about the second half of their life. Danny was working as a vice president of a software company, and was ready to be his own boss. Wendy loved old buildings, design and vintage treasures.
It took some convincing, but after touring two historic buildings in downtown Hartford, the Dulaks purchased what is now known as the Welsch Building, 100 N. Main St., and the Hilt Building, 10 S. Main St.
With their company, Second Chance Ventures LLC, the couple rehabbed the Hilt Building first, putting two commercial storefronts on the street level and one in the basement level. The two upper levels have five fully renovated apartments, which are rented. The two commercial storefronts are also leased.
They are now beginning to renovate the Welsch building, which will also have three retail spaces and five apartments.
“I hate to say the downtown is being revitalized, because that implies there is something wrong with it,” Danny said. “Hartford is seeing what a lot of areas are – people want to be in the downtown area and within walking distance of what is going on. I just think it is happening a little later here.”
Danny said he is excited about the changes coming to Hartford.
“I feel like we are on the cusp of things,” he said. “I’m happy to be a part of it. I hope I can be a small catalyst of the things to come.”