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
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.
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.”
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.”
downtown’s future lies in luring the stream of outlet mall
shoppers across the river and into downtown,” Bohlmann said in
“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.
enclosed walkway was built in 1982 … to provide a
climate-controlled passage from Main Street to the outlet mall,”
the DNR paperwork states.
Bend Outlet Mall was a 50,000-squarefoot building constructed at
what was then 180 Island Ave. that housed about a dozen shops.
at Canda Fashions, a clothing store,” Ellen Dolnick said. “It
was all enclosed and it was a nice place to work.”
said she and many patrons of the outlet mall used the covered
“It was a
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
Center of the Washington County Historical
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.
features a photo of a woman carrying an armload of parcels above
lettering that states “Shopping’s Fun Again!”
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.”
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.
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.
opened, the outlet mall was wildly popular, as the West Bend
News noted it had “a packed house” for its grand opening Nov. 3,
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.
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.”
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
owner of Maus Jewelers at 930 S. Main St., West Bend, operated a
kiosk in the center of the outlet mall for several years.
very nice but being located in a mall is expensive,” Maus said
Thursday, recalling the retailer’s perspective of the outlet
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.
when the outlet mall in Kenosha opened, that people decided that
it just wasn’t worth the drive to come to West Bend,” Dolnick
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.
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.
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