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In many respects, downtown West Bend is thriving.
Most storefronts are filled, its historic theater building is newly renovated, public works projects have created activity spaces and new developments promise to draw in even more people.
But this didn’t happen overnight.
As John Torinus sees it, downtown West Bend today is the product of over 50 years of hard work.
“There’s been a long and sustained effort by a lot of leaders, both on the private side and on the public side,” said Torinus, chairman of West Bend-based Serigraph Inc. who has lived in the community for five decades.
By his estimation, there has been $50 million of overall investment to the downtown area over that 50-year period. To him, it all started with efforts by the city and businesses to clean up the Milwaukee River.
“I think without cleaning up the river, none of this stuff would have happened,” he said.
Torinus credits the river clean-up with paving the way for projects like the $3.5 million renovation of the historic West Bend Theatre at 125 N. Main St. Torinus is also a board member of Historic West Bend Theatre Inc., the nonprofit group that bought and renovated the building.
The restored theater had a soft opening right before Gov. Tony Evers issued his “Safer at Home” order in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the state. But the theater will be ready to host shows when the time is right, Torinus said.
Public infrastructure has contributed to the overall revitalization of the downtown area as well. The riverwalk is undergoing reconstruction. Work has already taken place on the east side of the river, and reconstruction on the west side is set to begin this year. A future phase will extend the riverwalk underneath Highway 33 to the north. Funding for the riverwalk reconstruction comes from public and private sources.
“The riverwalk has been nothing but positive for the city,” said Jay Shambeau, West Bend city administrator.
The city has also in recent years rebuilt a pocket park, which offers pedestrians a direct connection from the businesses on Main Street to the river and across it to the Museum of Wisconsin Art. And the revitalized Old Settlers Park is used as the center of outdoor events, including downtown summer concerts.
There’s a lot happening east of the river. Much of the development activity involves the former Gehl Co. manufacturing site, which sits south of Water Street and west of South Forest Avenue. Two separate projects are underway there.
On the northern end is the construction of a 15,500-square-foot office building, known as Water Street Suites, and a 68-room TownePlace Suites Marriott extended-stay hotel. Planned for the southern portion is a senior residential community. This builds off other recent multi-family projects nearby, said Shambeau.
“Just the fact of having residents in our downtown area does nothing but lift the current businesses that are there,” he said.
The site’s redevelopment has long been anticipated. West Bend acquired the site from Gehl, now known as Manitou Americas, in 2008 after the company relocated two blocks east. The city then cleaned up the site and prepared it for development.
But, there’s more to downtown West Bend than buildings and infrastructure. A variety of events draw in thousands of people, including farmers’ markets, a summer concert series, an annual car show, a kayak race and seasonal festivals. These events are all put on by the Downtown West Bend Association.
Anna Jensen, events director for the association, said roughly 2,000 people attend the weekly farmers’ market, and between 800 to 2,000 attend the summer concerts. The car show attracts almost 450 cars, about 60% of which are driven by people living outside of the community, she said.
“So, people are coming from outside West Bend to our events,” Jensen said.
Downtown is reflective of the city’s history and its entrepreneurial spirt, said Kraig Sadownikow, former mayor of West Bend and president and owner of American Construction Services and American Architectural Group, two of the three companies that comprise West Bend-based American Cos. American Cos. is co-developing the hotel and office project with Downtown West Bend Hotel Associates LLC and Iowa-based Kinseth Hospitality Cos.
Sadownikow said when the city was first formed, it was basically “in the middle of nowhere” and had to be self-sufficient.
“Downtown really mirrors the greater West Bend area and our history,” he said. “West Bend was built on entrepreneurship; it was built on families taking a chance.”
Downtown today is thriving in large part because of the numerous small businesses located there, Sadownikow said.
“Certainly, you’re not seeing chains and franchises. You’re seeing people carve out their own little ideas,” with businesses ranging from restaurants to a music academy to a specialty bath and body product retailer, he said.
Synergy exists among the amenities and attractions of downtown, particularly its arts and cultural offerings, such as the museum, theater, sculptures and outdoor music events, Torinus said.
“Pretty soon you’ve got a critical group of amenities, and if you think about it, we’ve got an arts district,” Torinus said.
There’s also the ArtWalk, another product of the Downtown West Bend Association. It consists of 50 hand-painted banners hanging on downtown light poles. Jensen said the paintings essentially turn downtown into an art gallery.
Jensen said the new hotel will add a needed piece to downtown, especially for visitors who are in town to attend a show at the theater or tour the museum. The hotel, just a short walk from those attractions, will encourage more overnight stays, she said.
Community leaders hope all of this will result in downtown being a year-round destination. As Sadownikow puts it, there needs to be a reason for people to visit downtown West Bend on “a cold Tuesday in February.”
And Torinus hopes it will be a place where people choose to live as well.
“It’s getting to be a very lively, picturesque place where people want to be,” he said.