Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Locals, businesses need common ground

by John Halverson

April 05, 2012

Itís our own little civil war.

Every tourist community fights it.

Itís over aligning the interests of the locals with the tourist-oriented businesses.

The latest skirmish was over a plan to bring summer stock to Lake Geneva. The owners of the Baker House thought it would be a great idea to host summer theater outside the Golden Oaks Mansion. Those who live nearby thought otherwise.

Iím convinced the Baker House people were sincere in their desire to do something for the community. The locals felt they had a right to peace and quiet; thatís understandable, too.

The idea was withdrawn before the debate heated up further, but the underpinnings of the disagreement points to a bigger fault line.

While I may sound Pollyannaish, Iíd like to think the two ďsidesĒ could find common ground in the future.

The downtown merchants would love to see the citizens of Lake Geneva support them more, especially during the winter when many businesses fight to survive.

The locals, whether they like to admit it or not, are beholden to the downtowners for creating a classy shopping community. After all, we could be Wisconsin Dells.

At the same time they moved here or stayed here because they love Lake Genevaís small town atmosphere.

Too often, as was the case in the summer stock issue, the city council is in the middle ó balancing the rights of home owners with the ideas of the merchants. In this case, it involved zoning. The discussion over whether the city should use TIF funds to save the downtown theater is another example of a split between one faction of the community and another.

Instead of an adversarial perspective, there ought to be a way the interests of both ďsidesĒ can be honored.

I sit at meetings of retailers and hear about how they want to help the community evolve. For instance, there are thoughts of biking and running events that might nudge the city toward more of a Madison-like outdoor fitness community. There are other ideas for cultural and recreational developments that downtown merchants have explored.

Iím sure locals have their ideas, too, but there isnít really a forum to express them. So, sadly, too often their comments only arise when thereís controversy which does a disservice to their motives as well.

Itís easy to say retailers are just thinking about their business. Thatís often part of the equation ó they are running a business so itís only natural. But itís a mistake to paint their motives so starkly. Almost always their ideas are painted in the light of improving or adding to the community, too.

I saw the enthusiasm one of the owners of the Baker House had when she saw an opportunity to bring summer stock to the community and how perplexed she was with such vehement objections.

ďThis doesnít have to happen,Ē she said repeatedly at a recent Plan Commission meeting. And, indeed, it wonít happen as she eventually withdrew the idea because of the concern of neighbors.

Thereís also a wrong assumption that downtown merchants are carpetbaggers ó non-residents who hit the community to make money and then run home to Chicago to spend it.

Actually, most of the major players in downtown actually live here. Kevin Fleming, the patriarch of downtown business leaders, has lived here forever. So has Speedo Condos. Many others also live in the area.

While their motives for being here may vary, Iím sure part of the reason theyíre here is because they love Lake Geneva.

Thatís why Iím here. Itís fate that I even ended up at this job. I wouldnít have even known about it if I wasnít already living here. So when I hear ideas raised about the evolution of the community, I think as a local as well as a business person.

As a citizen, I want a great hometown. As a business person, I want the city to flourish economically. The ideas donít have to be mutually exclusive.

I consider it a blessing to be here and Iíd love to have the paper be a part of bringing the two ďsidesĒ of the community together. Thatís one of the duties of a community paper beyond policing the politicians and telling the community whatís going on.

I hope the Regional News can become a forum for constructive dialogue. Feel free to send letters to the editor or respond to this invitation on our website comment section,

Remember to be nice, though. Letís start a coming-together, not another war.

Halverson is the general manager and interim editor of the Regional News.