West Bend sees Main Street revival

Couples comfortably stroll the streets, clerks help customers to their cars and people relax at lunch on outdoor restaurant patios. At night, white lights border building rooftops, and the top spire on the old county courthouse stands sentry over the community. This is downtown West Bend.

An area once working to rediscover itself is now moving forward, driven simply by what’s happening around it, as a surge in residential development on the riverfront is rejuvenating businesses.

“The thing I found most remarkable about the downtown area is the old county courthouse,” said West Bend Chamber of Commerce executive director Craig Farrell about the Romanesque revival style building from 1889. “It towers above the rest of the community and can be seen from everywhere.”

Farrell, who came to West Bend 17 months ago, described the downtown as “stepping back into my boyhood.”

Farrell said, “The different shops have a ‘something for everyone’ appeal, and if people are looking for a kinder, gentler way of life, going through our downtown provides that.”

“It invites people to walk and linger and spend time instead of just drive, park, shop and go home,” said Josephine Minskey of the Downtown West Bend Association.

Minskey credits the downtown’s ability to “stay vital and viable by combining the old with the new.”

She said, “Twenty years from now, the downtown will be remembered for our current vision, restoring the great, old, beautiful buildings and new development.”

Dark red and brown brick pavers line the sidewalks of Main Street. Colorful hanging flower baskets are evenly interchanged on black light posts with simple banners advertising the downtown farmers market and Main Street program.

“That program is part of the Department of Commerce and offers a solid framework on how-to build a good Main Street,” Minskey said about the guidelines she believes give the downtown a “pulled-together look.”

One recently completed development includes a paved portion of the Eisenbahn Trail. An old railroad bed converted to a bike path has silently connected the subdivisions with the shops as the trail threads through the downtown.

“I see all demographics using that trail now, and it’s been a huge asset for the city,” said Kevin Schultz owner of Mountain Outfitters a bike and ski store in downtown West Bend. Schultz has been in business for 14 years and praised the progress he’s seen on Main Street, especially in the area of customer parking.

“Four or five years ago, employees used to park in front of the businesses. Now the downtown has the mentality of the customer first,” he said of the unlimited, free parking reserved for customers.

Schultz said business owners take pride in the downtown and their buildings. “With the new development and the road being moved adjacent to the river, we definitely need to focus on the benefits of capturing people coming in the back door as well as the front.”

Current city planning has engineers removing roundabouts and relocating Veterans Avenue to the edge of the river.

“I like the variety of stores,” said Sue Tessendorf, who has lived in the community for 22 years. “We have Winkler’s Office supply,  Husar’s House of Fine Diamonds,  Hemauer’s Decorating and Tennies Ace Hardware.”

Down the street, past the unlocked bikes and hometown movie theater, is Januli’s Pizzeria and Italian Deli, an independently owned Italian restaurant started seven years ago by Julie Sears. “My favorite thing is to come out on the sidewalk, crank the awning out and sweep the sidewalk,” said Sears, adding that her Norman Rockwell routine prompts teasing from her staff. “It’s a pride thing taking care of your own business.”

Sears has been a community leader, promoting a camaraderie between shop owners and sparking ideas to bring people downtown.

“We’re getting more of a European type flair where people want to be able to be within walking distances of conveniences like restaurants and entertainment,” said Sears, pointing to the isolation of the Internet as a jumping-off point. “The workplace is becoming so impersonal that people crave human contact, so the events we provide are always well-attended because it’s something to do with somebody,” said Sears, listing free community events such as Germanfest, the farmers market and Music on Main.

“We’re a sophisticated downtown,” said Minskey, who believes the downtown’s biggest triumph has been surviving when many others have failed. “We have very few empty storefronts.”

As far as the future, Minskey said there’s “always the eye cast towards Cedarburg. People say ‘we should be more like Cedarburg. But I think we’re the best West Bend we can be.”

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