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Revitalizing Port


July 2014


Renderings for the new Port Explorium include a rooftop deck for social events and exhibits of local history. (Lower left) Developer Gertjan van den Broek’s Harbour Lights project includes 13 condominiums.

Emily Kapszukiewicz and her fiance, Alex Funk, chose to live in Port Washington in early 2013 because it was centrally located between their jobs.

A year later, when they were house-hunting, Kapszukiewicz, 26, told their Realtor that Port Washington was their "No. 1 choice hands-down." "We came because of our jobs, but we’re staying because we love the community," Kapszukiewicz says. "I think it’s great that they are not just trying to attract tourism to Port, but they are also trying to attract young people to live downtown."

Kapszukiewicz, who purchased a house in the city in February, is most excited about the Boerner Building, a three-story, 32,000-square-foot building in the heart of downtown Port Washington that was restored in 2013. Tenants now include Sweetheart Cakes and ZuZu Pedals, a bike and fitness shop.

The decision by the Duluth Trading Co. to move into the former Smith Brothers building on a prominent downtown corner in 2012, followed by the restorations of the Boerner Building and the Port Washington Historical Society headquarters next door in 2013, have been the catalysts for the town’s revitalization, says Mayor Tom Mlada. "I think when the Duluth Trading Co. came in, there was a bit of ‘Why Port?’ but we needed to change the question to ‘Why not Port?’" Mlada says. "Once people started to see we were worthy of that type of investment, they really started believing."

One of those investments is the Harbour Lights Development, which incorporates 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level facing Lake Michigan on the east and Franklin Avenue, the city’s main downtown retail corridor. Thirteen condominiums will be located on the upper floors.

The project, which is currently underway, redevelops the former M&I Bank on Franklin Street and the Harry’s Restaurant building.

Lifelong Port Washington resident Melissa Suddendorf, 33, says the city has always been a destination for fishermen, but it has never had the retail base to sustain day trips for other tourists.

Suddendorf opened a boutique downtown in 2010, Pear & Simple, and says she is encouraged by all the other recent development. "We have so much to offer. I’ve always looked at Port and thought it should be a lot more," Suddendorf says. "I think the Duluth Trading Co. making Port its home made everyone believe we can do this."

Another development in the works that will undoubtedly transform downtown Port Washington is the Port Explorium. A Port Washington native gave the historical society $1 million anonymously in 2012 with the provision that it purchase the Businessmen’s Club building and turn it into a sustainable museum for families.

Easier said than done.

For the last two years, a museum advisory board has been diligently working to make the request come true. Plans are now in place to design a state-of-the art museum, including a lower level designed to look like a schooner. The "ship" includes eight interactive exhibits for children. "If we do our job right, visitors will be transformed to a different time," says Bill Moren, chair of the museum advisory board.

Upstairs, the opening adult exhibit will feature the work of Port Washington native Vern Biever, who was a World War II photographer and the official team photographer for the Green Bay Packers for more than 60 years.

The museum project will cost an estimated $2.3 million. The historical society is currently in the midst of the largest fund-raising project in its history. So far, about $700,000 has been raised in addition to the first $1 million. An opening date has not yet been set; however, Moren is hopeful it will be next spring. "We don’t view this as the historical society’s museum, this is the community’s museum," Moren says. "We want to make this about storytelling. This museum is as much about the future as it is the past."



This story ran in the July  2014 issue of: