Downtown West Bend peppered by empty stores

By CHRIS BUCHER - Daily News

March 5, 2015

A man walks by the vacant building at 156 N. Main St. on Wednesday morning in West Bend. Building owner Jeff Littrel purchased the building in 2009 and since has stayed vacant. 
John Ehlke/Daily News 

Editor’s note: See Friday’s paper for a story about downtown parking as it relates to business.

WEST BEND - A wedge-shaped building with black paper covering its windows has sat vacant for at least six years in downtown West Bend. But now the building at 156 N. Main St. will finally get a new tenant.

Ian Meyer of Barton plans to move his tattoo parlor, Barton Ink, into the empty property.

Located next to Old Settlers Park, the space had been vacant since Lori’s Costume Shop relocated.

The property owner, Jeff Littrel, saw huge potential in the building when he purchased it in 2009, but nothing ever came to fruition.

“The Music on Main events being right next door gives a good amount of business to this area,” Littrel said of the weekly music gatherings that bring out hundreds of people in the summer. “While a lot of people that attend Music on Main probably aren't looking for tattoos, just being so close should get the name of the business inside of their head.”

A call to Meyer for comment was not returned by deadline.

Building owner Jeff Littrel pulls a piece of lumber as he continues work on the inside of 156 N.Main Street on Wednesday afternoon in West Bend. Littrel purchased the property in 2009 and since has stayed vacant. In April, Barton Ink owner Ian Meyer plans on moving his tattoo business from Barton Avenue to the corner space on Main Street. 
John Ehlke/Daily News 

Though it will soon be filled, the storefront is one of several deserted storefronts in downtown West Bend.

Locations at 121 and 149 S. Main St., as well as 151 and 153 N. Main St. are examples of vacated stores. Remnants of what used to be businesses are visible in nearly every one of the storefronts. The sign for the West Bend Theatre lights the downtown at night, but the facility has been empty for many years.

A week ago, To Your Health, a nutrition and fitness shop at 148 N, Main St., decided to refocus their business and moved across the street into the Downtown West Bend Association building at 215 N. Main St.

The move adds another property to the list of vacated storefronts.

Trendressa, a retail clothing store located at 162 S. Main St., will also close its doors once the lease is up at the end of the month.

“The rent outweighs the business that I’m actually getting,” owner Mary Kutsche said. “When we first opened, business was good, but it’s trickled down. There’s just not a lot of foot traffic. Typically, we do better online.”

Trendressa is one of downtown’s newest stores — opening in April.

Kutsche said she attributes some of the slow business to a poor location.

“People will stop at the stoplights next door and not know we have a store here,” Kutsche said. “With our location (at the end of Main Street), I’m kind of out of the downtown events. I think if we were located further down the road, the traffic may increase depending on the specific event.”

Kellie Boone, Downtown West Bend Association event manager, agreed that Trendressa’s location wasn’t the best.

“It’s very unfortunate, I love her store and I’m going to be very sad to see her go,” Boone said. “That location doesn’t have good luck for retail-based businesses.”

Boone said in her years within the community, she hasn’t seen a lot of businesses being forced to move.

“There’s really not that many empty stores,” Boone said. “In my tenure, I’ve seen more people come in than have left. And for the ones that end up leaving, I haven’t seen much of a lag time before someone else moves in. Downtown is really the type of place where people want to be.”

One of the areas longest-running businesses is The Candyman, located at 121 N Main St. Manager Linda Schnabel said despite other businesses lack of sales, The Candyman has been thriving.

“Business has definitely gone up throughout the past year,” Schnabel said. “We’ve been doing very well and I think some of the reason for that is because we’re trying some new things, such as new candies, new packaging and what we call ‘candy cocktails.’” Most business owners and workers, including Schnabel, agreed that one of the surefire ways to increase sales is to hold additional events along Main Street.

“We’re always down there on Music on Main,” Schnabel said. “We do very well during that and also during the Christmas parade.”

While there are a handful of events that incorporate businesses every year, there’s no such thing as too many. A Saturday Farmers’ Market draws a large crowd.

Littrel said that he would be happy if they put on a lot more events for businesses.

“I would like to see the downtown association develop more events,” Littrel said. “The events are good, but they could definitely do more.”

The Diva Group is a group of West Bend retailers and restaurants committed to creating events, such as Spring Bling, Diva Night and Gallery Night.

Boone said she’s been working with the group to bring back Maxwell Street Days. The event used to be a city-wide celebration, however it will return in a limited capacity in the downtown area.

“We try to put on as many events as we can, but a lot of it depends on where you are,” Boone said. “We do quite a few (events) throughout the year and just recently we decided to bring back Maxwell Street Days. We’ve received a ton of requests to bring it back to what it used to be with vendors and shopping.”

Littrel pointed to a property owner tax to fund the events and feels that improvements should be made.

“Property owners pay an extra tax assessment called a Business Incremental District,” Littrel said. “I pay an additional $800 in tax every year. That money is supposed to go toward improving the downtown area. I’d like to see that money spent on doing more fun things for the downtown community.”