Some in downtown West Bend group regret overpaying for students’ ideas
Officials paid almost $10,000 to host brainstorming session

By Ralph Chapoco

Jan. 9, 2019

C.J. Morgan of West Bend walks south on Main street near a vacant store front
Tuesday morning in downtown West Bend.
John Ehlke/Daily News

WEST BEND — Members of the Downtown West Bend Business Improvement District expressed some buyer’s remorse when they reviewed some of the ideas the high school and college students generated as part of The Commons group.

“I would just like to echo the thought that I think we overpaid in hindsight for this opportunity and that we should be more careful next time that we consider this sort of brainstorming activity,” Alderman Michael Christian said, who is also a member of the business improvement district.

Officials paid almost $10,000 for the opportunity to host students to develop ideas for improving the downtown. The idea was borne from a meeting during the first months of 2018 when board president Mike Husar requested Economic Development Manager Adam Gitter obtain a record of the vacant spaces, along with the businesses that occupied the buildings in the downtown.

That idea morphed into a more comprehensive project to generate general ideas for improving the downtown.

Gitter provided them with an overview of the project, along with the ideas that about 30 students generated when they spent that October day in West Bend.

Representatives from The Commons, the group tasked with overseeing the project, recruited them from Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, along with several others to generate ideas for improving the location.

Participants spent the morning exploring the downtown, visiting with guests of the farmers’ market to ask a series of questions to receive their feedback regarding the area, from Main Street to the adjacent thoroughfares.

They then gathered at the Museum of Wisconsin Art to begin one of the three sessions, each focusing on a different aspect of the downtown: public spaces, the empty storefronts, as well as the programming designed to attract people to the area.

Once those were completed, they were then tasked with coordinating the disparate ideas into an overall strategy.

Among the proposals to improve the public spaces was an idea for providing a digital experience for visitors.

“It is more foot traffic, traveling, walking, getting those people in front of those storefronts, walking past them to go see destination art and things like that,” Gitter said when describing the idea. “One of the things this reminds me of is The Ghost Train in Shorewood. They have a Ghost Train but is actually a light show that travels through. People buy tickets to go to this thing.”

In terms of storefronts, one group developed a plan to dedicate space for live entertainment, reasoning that it would appeal to a population who wanted to gain exposure. Restaurants could use the space to accommodate live entertainment if it was conducive to use their venues.

“The storefronts aspect of this project seemed more disappointing to me than any of the other aspects,” Christian said. “It is fine to have pie on the sky ideas about, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to have this sort of business there.’ Essentially, the business culture itself has to be available and someone has to have these ideas. As a community, as a city, we can’t just go into business for ourselves on these ideas.”

He believed ideas about the process for filling the storefronts and recruiting businesses into the spaces would have been more helpful.

To address programming, one group developed a proposal to close the downtown to vehicular traffic. Green paces would be encouraged, as well as establishing additional seating outside of the restaurants.

“I am thinking that for the amount of money that we spent, which was a lot of money, I think it is an overview of stuff that has already been talked about,” board member Peggy Fischer said.

She added that, “I was hoping that we would see some ideas on how we would bring some diversification into West Bend, beyond the Irish and Germans that are here. I was looking for hopefully some involvement in Latino or African-American (populations), and how we would encourage that into our community.”

Some, including Husar disagreed, believing the event highlighted ideas to establish West Bend as a destination for people to visit and live. A recurring idea among the students was to establish the downtown area a pet-friendly location.

Officials could accommodate that with waste and water stations along Main Street and the riverwalk area.

“When I made my business pet friendly, I cannot tell you how many people come walking into my store with their dogs, from little dogs to big (dogs),” Husar said. “I mean I had a Great Dane in there once, but they didn’t want to leave their, as I would call them, my ‘child’ in the car when I was shopping.”

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