West Bend looks to fill vacant spaces downtown
BID members could work with college students on a plan

By RALPH CHAPOCO - Daily News Staff

Feb. 20, 2018

A sign is seen Monday at the window of the Centrum building in downtown West Bend indicating there is space available.
Ralph Chapoco/Daily News

West Bend officials are considering engaging college students to address an issue with the vacant spaces in the downtown.

Economic Development Manager Adam Gitter was tasked with establishing a system for increasing the occupancy rates for the downtown area, and after researching the issue for the better half of a month, presented his findings and potential solutions to members of the Business Improvement District during the Feb. 6 meeting.

Gitter managed to find a database of the existing businesses, per District President Mike Husar’s request, but with a caveat.

“This is a list of all the businesses in the downtown broken down by category,” Gitter said referring to a spreadsheet displayed on the monitors. “The first thing we need to do is to complete this downtown directory. The last time this was updated was in 2010. It is very out of date but that is the first step. An intern could be utilized in this project.”

Simultaneously, staff would begin formulating a plan for attracting businesses to the available spaces. To accomplish that, Gitter referred to several initiatives from state organizations such as the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., Commercial Association of Realtors and Catalyst.

Gitter also referenced possible assistance from students.

“MPTC (Moraine Park Technical College), I started working with them, and next semester they have an advertising and social media class,” he said. “I am formulating a plan with the class to talk through a project. This doesn’t come at any cost and would be completed in the fall semester.

Gitter’s final proposal was called The Commons, which is an organization that collaborates with students throughout southeastern Wisconsin and presents a project for them to work on.

The proposal would require an investment between $10,000 and $15,000, and students from local colleges and high schools would be invited to multi-hour session where they work on a challenge presented by West Bend officials, like filling vacant spaces in the downtown.

This would the first instance the organization would consult with a municipality for the project.

The initiative began with a request from Husar as part of the marketing proposal for downtown businesses. During the January meeting, Diva Group member and business owner Jeanne Renick, along with Anna Jensen from the Downtown West Bend Association, presented an advertising and marketing plan and petitioned members to subsidize the venture for almost $20,000.

Board members countered and voted to approve almost $10,000 to be used for promoting businesses and the downtown area during 2018.

As part of that January discussion, Husar instructed Gitter to find avenues for increasing the number of retailers to the downtown.

“I would also like, as part of that proposal, to ask Adam to come up an idea that goes along with what I proposed, of getting an inventory of buildings, of types of businesses, and what kinds of costs we would be looking at to do that,” Husar said.

His goal was not only to attract retailers to the spaces, but those that would complement the businesses that existed. To accomplish that, Husar requested that Gitter gather information about businesses that are in the area and take account of the available spaces.

Staff and board members can use that information to develop a marketing proposal to entice businesses to locate to the downtown, hoping that will lead to a more vibrant ambiance for that section of the city.

“My daughter is a sophomore in college, and she has participated in a couple of these,” Board member Anthony Jasen said. “I will tell you, the brilliance that comes out of that is amazing, the creativity of the youth, so five stars. That is amazing. That is a great concept. I would love to do this.”

The next step involves inviting organization representatives to a discussion regarding the details.

“Why don’t we schedule a time and get them up here to talk?” Husar said.