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An idea for bringing locals back downtown



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June 25, 2013 | 01:51 PM
The picture accompanying this column helps explain why locals no longer like shopping downtown Lake Geneva.

In that picture, there's a clothing store, a furniture store, Arnold's Drug Store and two dry good businesses.

Back then, in the 1920s, locals went downtown for their basic needs.

While Lake Geneva has always been a tourist community of sorts, it really blossomed after this photo was taken.

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Since then the city has increasingly become tourist-driven and locals have migrated away from downtown.

In fact, it's reached the point where many locals view the tourist business as the enemy.

Several weeks ago I wrote my suggestions for what the new leadership of the Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce should consider as its goals.

One of those suggestions was "bring the locals back to downtown."

Another was "expanding the downtown farther down Broad Street."

Put the two together and you have an intriguing idea.

Maybe one way to bring the locals back is to have the Broad Street extension of the downtown be more locally-oriented.

Obviously, one reason for the lack of interest in downtown by locals is the development on the east side of town. Walmart, Target and their neighbors have largely filled the needs of the old-fashioned downtown.

That movement toward big box stores on the outskirts of cities has been going on for decades and has ruined more than one downtown.

My hometown, Sheboygan, took years to recover. Prange's, which had been a mainstay when I was growing up, ran into troubled times.

The city tried a downtown walking mall, which turned out to be an abysmal failure that set the downtown spiraling backward for years.

Sheboygan's downtown has finally evolved into more of a mixed use function, but it took years to get to the point where it was vital again.

We're luckier.

In most ways the malling of America movement hasn't hurt Lake Geneva's vitality. Tourists don't come here for things they can get at home. So they head downtown to shop.

The locals are another matter. Downtown merchants would love to have them come back especially during the lean winter months when many of the businesses struggle to make ends meet.

If there was more to Broad Street, maybe locals would find their way to Main Street, too.

The merchants on Broad Street are already trying to mark themselves as part of downtown but with their own unique identity. The red umbrellas they put up recently is an example of that intention.

Imagine Broad Street and Main Streets as separate retail neighborhoods adjacent to each other. Each has its own identity. Each can feed off the other.

On the north side of Broad, there's already a good start with Simple restaurant. That appeals to both locals and visitors.

In between, the already thriving portion of Broad Street and Simple on the other end, there's a gas station, a tavern and several banks that have more local appeal.

That's a start.

And don't forget the Geneva Theater.

If that would become alive again — and it could under the new owner — it would be another reason to turn northward from Main Street.

For all this to work, something needs to be done with the dilapidated Traver Hotel — make it something or take it down. That's a roadblock for many visitors who think there's nothing beyond it.

Yes, the locals should come back to downtown.

But downtown may have to come out to reach them.

These changes don't happen overnight. Often, they take decades. But they have to start somewhere.

Everything takes a dream before it can move forward.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Lake Geneva Regional News.

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