The key to a successful downtown is finding the right mix between retail, business and entertainment and creating a place where people want to be. For the past 12 years, that’s what Amy Hansen has been striving for in her role as executive director of the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership. It seems to be paying off since the downtown boasts a 4 percent vacancy rate.
Downtown Fond du Lac has seen immense change during the past decade as once-empty properties, including the Hotel Retlaw, have come back to life, with multiple properties receiving grants to update their faćades, restoring historic brick and stone exteriors.
Hansen, who earlier this year became a certified Main Street America Downtown Revitalization Professional, sat down with Insight to discuss plans to keep moving the downtown forward.
Insight: Fond du Lac’s downtown vacancy rate is 4 percent — something that’s nearly unheard of. How did you get there?
Amy Hansen: Twelve years ago, the vacancy rate was more than 10 percent. There was a devastating flood in the downtown in 2008. Community and business leaders realized they needed a vision and plan to help the downtown. The first major project was the opening of the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts. That really showed dedication to the community about the downtown’s future. In 2010, the Fond du Lac YMCA also announced it was staying downtown rather than moving elsewhere and that helped set the tone that downtown was the place to be.
More recently, the opening of the Hotel Retlaw has been a major shot in the arm for the downtown. For years, it wasn’t operating to full capacity and needed renovations. Then it closed, but a developer eventually came forward, bringing it back online. There’s now space for business conferences and weddings plus a spa, restaurant and wine bar. When it was first announced that the Hotel Retlaw would be redeveloped, it created excitement and spurred more development. Whether people are coming downtown to work, for the Y, the arts center or a business, any traffic is a catalyst for other downtown businesses.
Downtown Fond du Lac has a robust program to help businesses update their faćades. How did that get started?
We have great support from the city. The city council put aside $125,000 per year in grants for business faćade renovations. We have 214 properties in downtown Fond du Lac and have given out 160 grants. It’s a very popular program. We’ve improved our processes to make sure the money is well spent. Owners need to have a good, solid design in place — they need to show paint samples, what type of windows are being looked at and so on. It’s about making sure they have a good plan in place. I especially love it when the false facades over the original brick and stone are removed, showing the building’s original beauty.
But the downtown is much more than its buildings and businesses.
You’re right. We are involved with a lot of events that bring people downtown and show them what we have here. We organize the farmers market and Fondue Fest, which is our largest event that brings 20,000 people downtown. We have four stages of entertainment.
But any time there is an event downtown, such as at the Thelma with its Thursday concerts, we want to help and be involved — the more successful that event is, the better it is for the downtown since it’s bringing people here and we can show them what we’re all about.
Going forward, our strategic plan is half and half. Half is focused on events and bringing more people downtown through our shop small, shop local program. Events and activities are big. People want to be social and have an activity, whether that’s the farmers market, some music or an arts event. The other half is focused on bringing more businesses downtown.
Our downtown is a good mix of small businesses and larger employers. We’ve been fortunate that about three years ago Marian University opened a downtown campus and now there are students and classes down here, which means more people. It’s a huge win that Marian wanted to be here. Agnesian HealthCare and some other larger employers are here too, all showing how viable we are.
What are some challenges facing the downtown?
Just like other places, Fond du Lac needs to attract and retain workers. That is one of our biggest challenges. We need to attract workers and having a vibrant community is a part of that. I’ve had some businesses that I’ve tried to recruit to open a second location in the downtown, but they are hesitant because of not having enough workers. They’ll say, “We’ll come, but do you have the workers?”
When it comes to attracting new businesses to the downtown, I’m focused on food-related retailers, whether it’s cheese, chocolate or tea. Those are shops people are looking for, so I’m hoping we can bring them here.