Buildings that once stood empty in downtown Chippewa Falls are now home to shops and businesses. Prospective business owners are looking for more space. Old buildings are being remodeled. New ones are being built. A new park is taking shape along the Chippewa River.
“It’s happening,” is how Jayson Smith describes it.
What’s happening is a huge surge of activity in downtown Chippewa Falls, and folks in the know give much of the credit to the longtime city planner. Smith, who has been in the position since 1981, has worked tirelessly for Chippewa Falls, says Mayor Greg Hoffman.
“He formed the Main Street program, he’s worked with the Chamber, he’s worked with a number of individuals to try to make sure that our downtown didn’t die,” Hoffman said.
The winds of change
Visitors who have not driven into downtown Chippewa Falls on Highway 124 for a year or more will see a stunning transformation that is just beginning.
The old buildings that once lined the entryway are gone, soon to be replaced by a riverside park. The intersection of River Street (Business Hwy. 29) and Bridge Street is now a roundabout. The pesky one-way section of Bridge Street that ran for a single block is now open to traffic from both directions.
That block between River and Spring Streets, which acts like a gateway to downtown, is now framed by two new brick buildings — a visitors’ center that doubles as the offices of the Chamber of Commerce, and the relocated home of engineering and architectural firm Short Elliot Hendrickson.
Teri Ouimette, Chippewa Falls Main Street executive director, says downtown businesses are already seeing a change.
“I’ve been told by several business owners that business has been up 18 to 20 percent,” she said.
These changes may be recent, but according to Smith, the downtown revitalization began more than 25 years ago when Chippewa Falls became part of the state’s then-new Main Street program. The downtown was hardly dead, but it wasn’t thriving as it once had been.
“We could see the weaknesses — more vacancies. Some businesses had moved out and closed,” he said. The city put together a committee to oversee a market analysis of the downtown. Though skeptical of another government program, committee members attended a Wisconsin Main Street work session.
“They came out very excited,” Smith said. Since 1989, Chippewa Falls Main Street has helped new businesses get started, assisted longtime business in making attractive upgrades, organized beautification projects and created events like the Bridge to Wonderland parade, which attracts thousands of spectators each December.
Even the most recent developments on South Bridge Street have been a long time in the planning. Smith says a redesign of the entryway was part of the city’s 1999 comprehensive plan, but heavy traffic on State Highway 29 made building a park there impossible.
It wasn’t until the state rerouted the highway in 2005 that the city was able to start planning. A concept plan was completed in 2007 and the city began buying properties and demolishing buildings.
Clearing the way
One of those buildings, which came down in July, was the Chamber of Commerce office and Visitors’ Center. Opened in 1999 in a former Hardee’s restaurant, the visitors’ center was funded by a new hotel room tax created to promote tourism in the city.
Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce President Mike Jordan says the center served the city well, but it was located in a flood plain and the new roundabout obstructed access to the parking lot. After considering several options, the Chamber board decided to tear down the burned-out Empire building one block up Bridge Street and build a brand new office and visitors’ center.
The new center opened in February and the parking lot was completed at the beginning of August. By Labor Day weekend, the center was seeing up to 50 visitors on Saturdays. Jordan expects that number to double or triple in future summer seasons.
“Our walk-in traffic numbers are increasing and it’s giving a great first impression of our community,” he said.
Northwestern Bank President Jerry Jacobson is a lifetime Chippewa Falls resident and has worked at the bank on Bridge Street for more than 35 years. He remembers when U.S. Highway 53 still ran up the main drag and downtown was home to department stores and dime stores like J.C. Penney and Woolworth. While activity downtown is not what it was in the ‘60s, Jacobson said it’s getting there.
“In the last week, I’ve had two different individuals looking to buy properties downtown and bemoaning that there’s a lack of opportunities to buy places to put their businesses,” he said. “We haven’t seen that for awhile.” Jacobson is another who gives Smith credit for the downtown’s resurgence.
A downtown for all
Smith believes it makes sense for a city to focus on its downtown.
“I’ve been passionate about downtown economic development,” he said. “I think downtowns traditionally were your center of business. It was your identity.” Taken as a whole, Smith is sure that downtown is the city’s biggest employer.
The as-yet-unnamed riverside park project has spurred much of the renewed interest in downtown, including the new SEH headquarters and the Chippewa River Distillery and Brewster Brothers Brewing Company, set to open this fall on River Street.
“We’re not just doing it to create a park,” Smith said. “We’re doing it for economic development purposes and to make sure people want to come down here and businesses want to be here.”
Attractions such as the Leinenkugel Brewery, Mason Shoe Outlet and Olson’s Ice Cream have long helped to make Chippewa Falls a tourism destination. Smith says that’s important, but it’s only part of the picture. A real downtown is one where people want to live and work.
“A person can actually live in downtown Chippewa Falls and, for all practical purposes, hardly has to go anywhere else,” he said, noting the downtown has a grocery store, hardware store, pharmacies, restaurants, crafts, taverns, churches, banks and much more.
An eye to the future
Hoffman can hardly contain his excitement about the lively downtown district.
“Right now, we have five other projects that are looking at coming into the downtown,” the mayor said. He hopes that two or three of those projects can be announced before the first of the year.
The downtown park project will get into full swing next year. The cost is estimated at a little more than $10 million, though he said citizens will not be paying for the park through tax dollars. Funds shifted from a TIF district originally created to help build a sand plant on the city’s north side (a buyout by EOG eliminated the need) will provide nearly $1.5 million per year. DNR matching funds helped remove buildings from the flood plain.
The park will include a fishing pier, an amphitheater, a kayak and canoe launch, walking paths, tables and wi-fi access. Some features will be added in later years as part of a four-phase plan, but Hoffman said visitors will see the structure of the park take shape by the end of 2016.
“It will create people who want to come to Chippewa Falls, go down by the water, have a nice picnic, pop open the computer, sit there and relax, possibly fish,” Hoffman said. Those visitors are also likely to visit shops and restaurants up the street.
One new business that is creating a buzz is the Chippewa Candy Shop at 312 N. Bridge St. in the former Rada’s Men’s Wear building. The idea was born on a freezing night in December as Dan Sweeney watched the Bridge to Wonderland parade. Sweeney had two things on his mind — amazement that thousands of people would come downtown to stand in the cold and the fact that he wanted something hot to drink.
“Since it was freezing, I was wishing somebody sold hot chocolate,” he said. With encouragement and help from Main Street and other downtown business owners, Sweeney turned that idea into a gathering place where residents and visitors alike can sit, enjoy a cup of coffee, some fudge and candy. He said that people have driven all the way from the other side of the Twin Cities just to visit his shop.
Dave Gordon, co-owner of Foreign 5 and Lucy’s Delicatessen at 123 N. Bridge St., wants to keep building on the momentum. Gordon and his brother-in-law, Sheldon Gough, bought the business five years ago when they learned it might close.
“I didn’t think the city could afford to lose a business like this,” Gordon said. Now, as president of the Chippewa County Historical Society, he would like to use the area’s rich history to draw more visitors. The society is considering buying property near Irvine Park for a Chippewa area history museum.
While realizing the city’s potential will take the cooperation of many partners, Gordon said the progress that has already been made shows it can be done.
“When we do work together,” he said, “we do amazing things.”