Racine and Kenosha identity

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have an identity all their own
Sandwiched between the Illinois state line and Oak Creek, Racine and Kenosha stand as a separate, independent state, of sorts. Not really a part of metro Milwaukee, yet, still within southeast Wisconsin’s southern border, Racine and Kenosha have an identity all their own.
Some say that the two cities are more oriented toward Illinois. Many native Kenoshans root for the Chicago Bears and favor The Chicago Tribune. That phenomenon has only increased with the influx of Illinoisans in search of better housing values north of the state line.
Racine has a similar quality all its own. Not really oriented to Milwaukee, yet, not quite part of Illinois either, Racine stands on its own, thanks, in large measure, to the presence of S.C. Johnson & Son and major manufacturers like Modine and Case Corp.
While residents of each city prefer to point out the differences between them, Kenosha and Racine are more similar than they are different according to Russ Weyers, executive vice president of Johnson Bank who moved from Appleton 10 years ago. Still, competition between the two cities runs deep.
“I use the high school analogy,” Weyers says. “If I played sports against your high school, I will be competitive against you forever. They [Racine and Kenosha] are very competitive.”
Regional rivalries aside, a building boom has been going strong in the area in recent years. And with the latest developments like Harborpark in Kenosha and the redevelopment of Downtown Racine set to take off, the two communities north of the Illinois border are gearing up for even bigger economic growth.
But will the respective downtown developments leave residents wishing for the good old days? Will it change the gritty, blue-collar character of the two communities that defined it for the better part of the 20th century?
“I think you’re going to continue to get the small-town feel,” says Brian Kult, president of Johnson Bank’s Kenosha market and a Kenosha resident of five years. “You have a lot of people who have a lot of pride in the community and I think that’s going to continue. The growth will come, but I think it’s really the people that make up the environment or the culture of the community. That dynamic hasn’t changed.”
Kult, who moved from Waukesha, says other residents in the Kenosha area are very accepting of newer residents. “I think that’s really what fosters a feeling of community and a sense of community,” Kult says. “So, as long as that remains and the people are committed to continuing that, even with growth, I think the culture will remain.”
Johnson Bank’s Weyers agrees, suggesting that it’s important for the two cities to foster a sense of community within neighborhoods while still pursuing growth.
“If they lose the sense of their neighborhoods, they lose the sense of their whole town,” Weyers says. “Their neighborhood is what they see everyday. If the city does it right, they develop neighborhoods and that creates the city as opposed to trying to create the city.”
The comeback kid
Kenosha’s rise from the ashes of it’s past as an automaking town has been well documented. The city’s major lakefront development project, Harborpark, is located on land formerly occupied by the AMC/Chrysler plant. Chrysler’s exodus in 1987 kick started the city’s economic development efforts to diversify its economy and find work for the 5,000-plus workers who lost their jobs when Chrysler Corp. pulled up stakes.
“It was scary,” recalls Barb Riley, co-owner of Riley Construction in Kenosha. “We didn’t want to be like so many other towns that had collapsed after the major employer moved out.”
One decision currently paying dividends in the form of new and expanding businesses was to take the infrastructure – sewer, power and other utilities – west to Interstate 94.
“If you go back and look at it, the decision of Chrysler to close the manufacturing plant forced the community to make some pretty tough decisions,” Weyers says. “They banded together, laid the infrastructure and they’re really reaping the benefits of that right now.”
According to an estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, Kenosha’s popultion grew by 9.2 percent from 1990 to 1998 to 87,849.
downtown plan
Conversely, Racine has been slower to move on development for lack of a the kind of economic rebirth Kenosha has experienced, Weyers says. The Census Bureau estimate indicates that Racine lost 3.8 percent of its population from 1990 to 1998 down to 81,095. The City of Racine also suffers from being landlocked on the west, with its city limits halting at Highway 31. The city of Kenosha, by contrast, extends west of I-94.
Racine leaders view revitalization of the city’s downtown area as a linchpin to growth. The plan, as managed by the Downtown Racine Corporation, is comprehensive in its approach to the city versus previous piecemeal attempts at development in specific areas of the city.
“The community’s excited [about the development], but at the same time, they’re reserving their judgment until they actually see something,” Matt Wagner, executive director of Downtown Racine Corporation, says. “I can’t blame them. They’re skeptical. They’ve heard about plans in the past and nothing’s really come of it.”
Wagner believes that the heart and soul of any city is its downtown, adding that when potential clients or employees come to an area the first thing they look at is the downtown.
“So if it’s dilapidated or rundown, it reflects on the health of the community,” Wagner says.
Part of the natural attraction of the area is its location between Milwaukee and Chicago. Lake Geneva is just 45 minutes away.
“Major selling points for drawing Illinois companies up to Kenosha were the lower cost of utilities, the labor pool and the accessibility,” says Riley, who worked in Chicago for five years before joining the family business 10 years ago. “You can get around. Try to get in or out of Chicago. Good luck.”
The smaller, more accessible size of the two communities has contributed to the rapid growth of both areas, too.
“The size of the community – from a professional standpoint – makes you feel you can have an impact on the community,” Wagner says of Racine.
“It’s a very good place to raise a family,” Kult adds. “The educational system is very strong. There’s just a very strong commitment to education. There’s a lot of people who have grown up and lived in Kenosha for a long time. They have a lot of pride in the community. And I think you see that in how they take care of their homes, to the low crime rates adding to the quality of life issues from a family perspective.”
Life in the slow lane?
But living and working in a smaller city requires adjustments in at least one more thing: pace. As progressive as Kenosha’s development seems now, change still comes slowly according to Riley. She notes that development of the old AMC site was kicked around for at least 10 years before the city and its residents were finally ready for it.
“I just think the vision, the ability to cause a development is much easier in Milwaukee than it is here,” Riley says. “People tend to be complacent – they want things to stay as they always have been. Whereas in Milwaukee you’ll see a lot more rapid change. People have to just absolutely adjust to it or get out. Here, they can stagnate development.
All the same, things are moving forward, such as at the Kenosha lakefront, where Harborpark is taking shape. As bulldozers and construction teams work the land, Carol Jake, co-owner of Ski & Sports Chalet just north of Harborpark, is optimistic.
“I think the tourism will help develop the whole area and draw more people into downtown,” Jake says. “We rent Rollerblades and bikes for the tourists so I’m sure that it will help business.
“I’m just looking forward to it,” Jake continues. “I think not only will it bring in more tourism, it will get the people of Kenosha to come down and see the lakefront and enjoy it more. What they’re going to do in this area can only help business.”

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