It didn’t always lead nowhere
West Bend Outlet Mall thrived for years but only the bridge remains — for now


Nov. 23, 2015

Caution tape is pushed by wind underneath a bridge from Main Street to Veterans Avenue over the Milwaukee River Thursday morning in West Bend.
John Ehlke/Daily News

Known infamously as the city’s “bridge to nowhere,” the enclosed pedestrian walkway that spans the Milwaukee River did at one time lead somewhere — a place that would, it was hoped, make West Bend famous.

The West Bend Outlet Mall — which became connected to downtown via the bridge — was touted as the first of its kind in the Midwest when it opened for business Nov. 3, 1981.

In a West Bend News story that ran a month before the mall’s grand opening, Lee Bohlmann, then executive director of the West Bend Area Chamber of Commerce, said it would draw “a new kind of shopper — the outlet store shopper.”

“These aren’t the kind of people who are going to buy refrigerators,” Bohlmann said in the article, which added “she envisions a downtown full of specialty shops and small outlet stores.”

“The downtown’s future lies in luring the stream of outlet mall shoppers across the river and into downtown,” Bohlmann said in the story.

Today’s “bridge to nowhere” was the literal way to do just that. Although a map of the area from the early ’80s shows a “footbridge,” the enclosed bridge was built in 1982 according to paperwork submitted to the state’s Department of Natural Resources for a permit to hasten its demise. It’s removal is slated for sometime in December, West Bend City Administrator T.J. Justice said Wednesday.

“The enclosed walkway was built in 1982 … to provide a climate-controlled passage from Main Street to the outlet mall,” the DNR paperwork states.

The West Bend Outlet Mall was a 50,000-squarefoot building constructed at what was then 180 Island Ave. that housed about a dozen shops.

“I worked at Canda Fashions, a clothing store,” Ellen Dolnick said. “It was all enclosed and it was a nice place to work.”

Dolnick said she and many patrons of the outlet mall used the covered walkway.

“It was a wonderful bridge. It was lit at night and very convenient,” Dolnick said.

Brochures like this one highlighting the West Bend Outlet Mall provided a list of stores and a map to entice shoppers to the city from all over the Midwest. The outlet mall opened in October 1981 and was connected to downtown via a climate-controlled enclosed walkway over the Milwaukee River. The 50,000-square-foot building was demolished in the mid-2000s.
Courtesy Research Center of the Washington County Historical Society

Brochures, like several in the collection of the Research Center of the Washington County Historical Society, were designed to promote the West Bend Outlet Mall to shoppers far and wide.

One features a photo of a woman carrying an armload of parcels above lettering that states “Shopping’s Fun Again!”

Inside, the brochure notes, “Remember when shopping was fun? Inflation stopped that. Well, now, thanks to a new trend in retailing, shopping can be an exciting experience once more.”

“Factory outlet malls began on the east coast and have been enthusiastically received by cost-conscious consumers who are looking for quality. You see, factories themselves are the tenants in the mall. And now, the midwest has its very first mall, the West Bend Factory Outlet Mall in West Bend, Wisconsin. You’ll save from 30 to 70 percent on quality merchandise direct from the factory. Come out to the West Bend Factory Outlet Mall and make a day of it!,” the promotional brochure said.

Shops that were once part of the outlet mall included Ambrosia Chocolate, The Card Shop, The Brighter Side, Center Court Cafe, The Cookie Jar Cookie Outlet, Dinnerware, ETC. Inc, Houseware Outlet, The Knit Picker, Little Red Shoe House, Manhattan Factory Store, Newport Sportswear, Regal Outlet Store, Rainbow Fashions, The West Bend Company Store, Sausage Plus, The Paper Factory and Winona Knits, according to an advertisement brochure.

When it opened, the outlet mall was wildly popular, as the West Bend News noted it had “a packed house” for its grand opening Nov. 3, 1981.

“The parking lot was full. The mall will hold 14 stores when fully leased and all but three were open for the grand opening, with two of the remaining spaces already leased,” the article said.

A story from the archives of the Washington County Historical Society that appeared in the May/June 1994 issue of “Washington County Business” said when the mall opened, “the whole downtown West Bend was overwhelmed with success.”

“Busloads of people with open wallets came from as away as Minneapolis to hunt for bargains at the mall’s 12 outlet stores. Paul Ronyak, then owner of the Washington House Restaurant in downtown West Bend, reported turning away 50 to 100 people a day, as roughly 80 percent of the mall’s customers were from out of town. As a Nov. 14, 1981, West Bend News article stated, ‘On this morning, as every morning since the mall opened two weeks ago, the 210 parking stalls will be filled by 10 a.m.’” the article continued.

Ray Maus, owner of Maus Jewelers at 930 S. Main St., West Bend, operated a kiosk in the center of the outlet mall for several years.

“It was very nice but being located in a mall is expensive,” Maus said Thursday, recalling the retailer’s perspective of the outlet mall.

Maus and Dolnick agreed that while it remained the only such mall, it couldn’t help but be successful. But once other, larger ones opened near big cities like Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha, the handwriting was on the wall for the West Bend outlet mall.

“I think when the outlet mall in Kenosha opened, that people decided that it just wasn’t worth the drive to come to West Bend,” Dolnick said.

By 1994, when the Washington County Business article was written, the outlet mall was breathing its last. The story points out that in addition to competition from “mega outlet malls,” like the 2.2 million-square-foot Gurnee Mills just south of the state line in Illinois and two that were built in Kenosha, Highway 45, which had led directly to the outlet mall in West Bend, was rerouted to a four-lane bypass on the west side of the city. Another reason for the outlet mall’s struggle was that national retailers like Winona Knits moved away from the outlet concept to more of an upscale form of retailing.

West Bend’s Outlet Mall had only three tenants remaining when the building was purchased in 1994 by Fields Fine Furniture, a company that had been on South Main Street in West Bend for 64 years and whose owners, Leonard and Steve Picus, jumped at the chance to acquire more space than the former outlet mall offered.

That transformation did not last and a decade later, the building that had housed a novel concept in retailing and had, for a time, made West Bend a shopping destination was purchased by the city and, in 2007, demolished — leaving only the “bridge to nowhere” as a reminder that it had existed at all.

Reach reporter Linda McAlpine at