Lakefront fuels Kenosha’s renaissance

Kenosha’s long-time blue-collar, factory image is being replaced by a bluer lakefront that is reeling in businesses, housing and development in the city’s thriving downtown.

“I remember when my parents would pile the family into the car and we’d go down to the harbor and watch them unload cargo from the big ships,” said 71-year-old Eddie Ragan, who “grew up in the sticks” in the Town of Somers, but seldom ventured far from Kenosha.

“I worked at the county courthouse and bartended on the side,” said Ragan, recalling “back in the day.” when she would slip on a pair of gold three-inch heels to “scoop the loop,” a Kenosha term for cruising the downtown.

Remnants of the old downtown are interwoven with modern amenities in downtown Kenosha. The metal Meyer Drug Store sign sits atop the roof of a current coffee shop. Old street lights line the curb along what used to be a closed pedestrian mall. Parking meters have been removed to encourage business traffic, and the latest wave to wash through the downtown is a Bohemian type of environment.

Local officials say the change is being accepted.

“Some of the key businesses coming in include a lot of coffee shops, and they’re doing fairly well,” said Kenosha community development specialist Zohrab Khaligian, who followed his wife to the area 15 years ago and is now the city’s representative to Kenosha’s downtown business improvement district.

“Our downtown is becoming really more of an entertainment area,” said Khaligian, noting the coffee shops, cafes and a pair of martini bars located within blocks of the lakefront. “New people are coming in looking for a more urban lifestyle. They can go north or south to Milwaukee or Chicago, but with these newer types of bars and restaurants, they’re finding that same thing here.”

Frank’s Diner on 58th Street is one downtown institution that visibly portrays a blend of character and culture. Blue stools are perched along the counter, running the length of the restaurant, which resembles an old railroad car. A sign at the front door reads; “Be nice or get out.” The back of the cook’s T-shirt says, “Order what you want. Eat what you get.”

“We accept anybody,” said owner Lynn Groleau, who spends a good 10 minutes talking to a 70-year-old regular with white hair, khaki pants and patent leather shoes. Comfortably seated next to the man is a couple in their 30s, donning pink hair, piercings and multiple tattoos. The diverse group blends as easily as the Chicago Tribune and the hometown paper tossed together on the granite countertop.

Frank’s has been in business since 1926.

“Because of the lakefront, we’re seeing a whole new renaissance in the downtown,” said 48-year-old Maria Caravati, who was born and raised in Kenosha and now runs Equinox, a body and soul boutique at the south end of the historic district. “The heartbeat is different downtown, as well as the energy. People are believing in the downtown.”

Caravati, a member of the Downtown Kenosha Business Improvement District, is praised by her peers for breathing new life into the downtown.

“I added flowers,” she said humbly. Thirty hanging baskets have blossomed into 75. Caravati also adopted a corner plot and suggested painting storefronts of vacant buildings as a way to highlight windows of opportunity rather then hide vacant shops.

Harbor Park, once the sight of the Simmons Mattress Co. and the American Motors Plant, has become a magnet for the downtown, drawing empty nesters and high school graduates who are returning and settling with their families. Harbor Park is comprised of about 400 predominantly owner-occupied condominiums.

“We’ve benefited from the sprawl (from Chicago), but the mindset of the community is we’re not a suburb, we have a local identity,” Khaligan said noting Kenosha is the fourth-largest city in Wisconsin.

Shades of Kenosha’s previous blue collar base still exist at the Chrysler Engine Plant. Kenosha is also home to the international headquarters for Jockey International Inc. and SnapOn Inc. The city has been able to boost its tax base by developing successful business parks close to Interstate 94.

“The Chrysler plant closing in 1988 was devastating,” said Khaligian about the 5,500 jobs lost. “But what it allowed was smaller manufacturers who can now compete in Kenosha. I’ve lived on both coasts, and what makes Kenosha’s downtown unique is the lakefront. The lake really is like the ocean for neighbors in Kenosha, and even though there’s some separation, there’s a definite benefit to the downtown, it’s a natural draw.”

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