Nicole Thomsen could have been a nurse. She was on the right path as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She’d started clinical training, worked as an obstetric technician and had an internship lined up at Froedtert Hospital.
Everything was on track until she realized that being a labor and delivery nurse wasn’t really her dream job. More than halfway through the UWM nursing program, she decided to drop her nursing major and managed to find a community engagement internship at Froedtert instead.
Thomsen found out how much she enjoyed being involved in the community and ultimately transferred to UW-Parkside. She decided to major in business, helped with university fundraising efforts and worked remotely with San Francisco-based One Degree Inc. She stumbled into a national sales competition at William Paterson University and won one of her events.
The competition opened up doors at major companies, but Thomsen said she felt drawn to her local community. When she saw a job posting for executive director of Downtown Kenosha Inc., Thomsen felt her background met all the criteria, even if she was just entering her final undergraduate semester.
She applied and managed to land the job. Her first official day was May 1 and she graduated from Parkside May 13.
“She showed this incredible initiative and innovation and analysis,” said Zohrab Khaligian, a community development specialist in redevelopment for the City of Kenosha and a member of the Downtown Kenosha board.
Khaligian said Thomsen’s response to an interview scenario question about density was to bring the board hard, well-researched data that could be used to convince an out-of-area retailer to locate downtown. He said her medical background gave her a more analytical approach and the unconventional path gave the board more confidence than if they were hiring someone without the same range of experiences.
Thomsen also has an advantage over the previous two people to occupy her role: she grew up in the area and knows the community in a way a newcomer can’t match.
“I’ve always been part of the downtown as a consumer,” she said. “I’m passionate about it, I love it. I’ve always seen the downtown for what it is and what it could be.”
Downtown Kenosha Inc. has had its ups and downs as a young organization. Originally conceived in 2012, it received nonprofit status in 2014 and Thomsen is the third person to lead the organization.
The creation of DKI also coincided with Kenosha’s transition from only having a downtown business improvement district to embracing the Main Street community development program.
Khaligian said the board’s initial hire, Violet Ricker, came from the Main Street program in Waukegan, Illinois. While she was well-versed in the program, Kenosha’s progress was ahead of Waukegan’s and Ricker wasn’t able to meet the board’s expectations, he said.
The second hire, Christopher Naumann, came from On Broadway Inc., Green Bay’s Main Street program. Green Bay was ahead of Kenosha, but Khaligian said there are pros and cons to every hire and Naumann eventually returned to Green Bay.
Amidst the leadership changes, development of downtown Kenosha has continued.
Madison-area developer Gorman & Co. is currently working on converting the historic Heritage House at 5706 Eighth Ave. into an 80-room boutique hotel. Renovating the 102-year-old building was among the ideas included in the 20-year strategic plan DKI is charged with carrying out and Gorman worked for several years to secure financing.
The area has also seen the development of 100 new apartment units and Mayor John Antaramian has had the city take control of vacant properties where possible. In mid-October, crews were wrapping up road and streetscape construction and prepping for the demolition of a parking structure.
“We’re finally seeing some large-scale development happening again,” Khaligian said.
Thomsen said the Heritage House project is the first thing she points to when describing the potential of downtown Kenosha to people outside the area.
“That’s a testimony to where we’re heading as a downtown and the type of investments that are going to be happening in our downtown in the future,” she said.
That’s not to say the downtown area is without challenges, and it doesn’t take long to find empty storefronts. Then there’s the reality that the downtown is a 15 to 20 minute drive from the interstate. The millions of square feet of buildings developed for the likes of Amazon, Uline Inc. and a number of manufacturers are bringing new people to the area, but getting them to regularly come downtown is another challenge.
“You don’t feel that sense of place when you get off the highway. You know you’re heading there because the sign tells you that you are, but it doesn’t feel like you’ve approached our downtown quite yet,” Thomsen said.
She suggested one way to overcome the geographic challenge is to make sure downtown offers unique living, shopping and entertainment opportunities, especially to attract millennials to the area.
“We’re driven by experiences and driven for unique experiences with unique people and things we haven’t done before,” Thomsen said.
She pointed to two four-day stretches over the summer when DKI partnered with Milwaukee Brewing Co. to hold pop-up beer gardens on Simmons Island, a park just north of the core downtown area. Beyond beer, the events featured live music, games, volleyball, bonfires and food trucks.
Thomsen said the beer gardens drew people from throughout the region, other organizations have since replicated elements of the events, and the park is seeing more investment from the city.
“It was just the coolest thing to see because it was just authentic,” she said. “You had everyone there that you would have wanted and it sparked something in people.”
Khaligian also pointed to the Kenosha Area Convention and Visitors Bureau creating Restaurant Week a few years ago as something that has helped draw people to downtown. At the same time, the retail offerings in downtown have been catching up and giving people a reason to be there when there are not events going on.
“We’re finally making these incremental steps,” he said. “Now we really have all the pieces coming together.”
Downtown Kenosha Inc. was created to carry out a 20-year vision, but it was left to Thomsen to develop the year-to-year strategy to make that plan a reality. Khaligian said one of Thomsen’s biggest challenges is to get and keep everyone involved in downtown’s revitalization on the same page.
Even though she is just a few months removed from college, Thomsen is keenly aware of the importance of having everyone work toward the same goals.
“The buy-in is huge and the goal is always collaboration,” she said. “Whenever you go through change it’s painful, because people like what’s normal, people like how things are, but I do think downtowns aren’t exempt from thinking progressively because you have to keep up.”
She’s also aware of the opportunity all the development near I-94 – from Foxconn to Uline to Amazon to Haribo – presents for downtown.
“That’s going to change the landscape of jobs, it’s going to change the landscape of amenities needed, it’s going to impact us as a downtown,” Thomsen said. “You have to think ahead. Getting people to see the bigger vision and outside of the day-to-day, is always going to be something that’s a little more challenging, but something that’s not impossible.”