Racine thrives as a ‘big small town’

Downtown Racine is in the midst of a gentrification, according to Downtown Racine Corp. executive director Devin Sutherland, who notes the changing style of merchants and the ongoing evolution as the community invests in its history and its harbor.

“Racine is a community that has everything,” community development director Brian O’Connell said. “It’s a full-service community – recreation, arts and all the urban services. There is a richness. It isn’t just one attraction and you’re done.”

Key components of downtown Racine’s renaissance are its extensive retail and residential developments.

“There is almost $300 million in construction ongoing right now,” said Sutherland, noting projects such as: Pointe Blue, a new 440-unit lakefront project; Waterside Condominiums, a $20 million mixed-use development featuring 24 condominiums, 80 apartments and 17,000 square feet of retail space at the corner of State and Main streets; The Harbor apartment homes for adults 55 and older; Atwater at Gaslight Pointe, a $14 million condominium project that already has 26 of its 40 units presold; and the RiverBend, at 6th and Marquette, an old Badger Uniform factory converted into loft-style condominiums.

“We haven’t felt a substantial impact from these developments just yet,” said Sutherland. “But when you combine all these with the confidence the developers have, it certainly demonstrates great success for the downtown.”

Archivist Dick Ammann of the Racine Heritage Museum represents the fifth generation of his family to call Racine home. “A big small town” is how Ammann classifies the community, pointing to the old buildings downtown as jewels.

“The churches are really interesting because they’re very, very old,” said Ammann, noting the nest of churches dating back to the 1800s, including the Gothic-style cream city brick St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the Romanesque style Church of Good Shepherd and the classical Greek design of the First Presbyterian Church.

Historically, Racine began as a maritime shipping community.

“Front doors and houses faced the lake,” Ammann said of the area that was once one of the five major Great Lakes seaports. In the 1950s, the spotlight shifted away from the water to manufacturing, and downtown merchants lost their customer base to suburban shopping centers.

However, Ammann said the current transformation with Festival Park and the marina has “changed the whole ambiance of the city and brought it back alive. Rather than industry, we have recreational boating and fishing, and North Beach is gorgeous.”

Referring to the upgrade of the city’s lakefront and the wave of development from Monument Square running the extent of Main Street,” Ammann said, “It’s the addition of galleries, small art dealers and a lot of little restaurants, including Spanish, Thai, Japanese and Korean fare.”

Long-time downtown merchants have wrapped their arms around the change. JoAnne Labre and her sister, Jeanne Melenric-Ehn, run Dover Flag & Map, a downtown staple for 18 years. “We like telling people where to go,” said Melenric-Ehn with a grin, producing a Monopoly style map featuring the shops and restaurants downtown.

“We hand out hundreds of these,” Labre said, pointing to highlighted squares such as the Racine Art Museum and restaurants Sticky Rice and Kewpee’s Hamburgers.

The small hometown diner on Wisconsin Avenue was founded in 1926 by Samuel Blair, inventor of the Kewpee hamburger with a pickle on top that “makes your heart go flippity flop,” according to the sign inside the front door.

Customers sit at two simple blue, horseshoe counters. On the far wall is a vast collection of Kewpee dolls and next to the front door, a yellowing newspaper article from 1926 detailing the day 71-year-old Samuel Blair married his fourth wife – a woman 50 years his junior. The new wife invited Blair’s third wife along on their honeymoon. “Things got in such a pickle they wound up in divorce court,” the article says.

Racine’s growing success, according to O’Connell, rests in a combination of factors.

“Other cities have historic downtowns, new construction and attractive architecture, and we do too, only Racine has it all in a very walkable package,” O’Connell said.

He cited the city’s facade grant program as one of the initiatives that helped spur cooperative change, but the downtown remains a work in progress.

“We need to have the next project build on the ones we’ve started,” he said.

O’Connell remains focused on the Kenosha Racine Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail link that may or may not ever come to fruition.

“A key thing for us would be to get KRM, the extension of the existing Metra service that comes into Kenosha,” he said, noting that the project could link commuter rail from Chicago through Racine and Kenosha and into downtown Milwaukee. “There’s no reason it can’t happen. The rail and the depot are still there. It’s just getting our legislature to approve the overall funding package.”

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