Free Ride

Posted on Jul 1, 2009 :: Down Time
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The Appleton Downtown Cool Trolley offers a fun, free way to sample nightlife in the summer.

The trolley was nearly half full before we flagged it down at the corner of College Avenue and Oneida Street in downtown Appleton. Many were in our party of downtown professionals who came along for the ride – some who heard about it through a Tweet sent out earlier that day.

We buzzed west on College, picked up a few groups along the way, then turned down State Street. As we took a sharp left down the steep hill on Jackman Street to the riverfront and Fratellos, those in the front rows flung their arms high and screamed “WHEEEE!” as if it was a roller coaster ride. … And that was in the first 10 minutes.

Among members of the sundry group who joined Insight staff for the ride: Deborah Wetter, Valley Transit general manager; Donna Gehl, president of Image Studios; Michael Kenney, marketing coordinator for the Appleton Public Library; Rose Kilsdonk of Atomic Tribe Media; Dave Ramsdell of Quick Print and his wife Lisa of Bijou; Chris Czarnik, owner of Coach, Inc.; Caroline and Sean Lasecki; Estella Caputo of AT&T – and, of course, Nikki Voelzke of Valley Transit, who helped cook up the idea for an after-hours tour.

As it happens, Appleton actually ran America’s first hydro-electric-powered trolley in 1886; trolleys ran on tracks through the city until 1930. Appleton has operated its Downtown Cool Trolley bus for the past few years, averaging about 11,000 riders each summer. Thursday and Friday nights and all day Saturday, it loops around downtown every 20 minutes, stopping at specially marked spots along the route.

The point, says Voelzke, is the trolley helps introduce people to the amenities not only downtown but along the riverfront. It reminds them that although the banks of the river are high, the “flats” are really quite close to the main drag of College Avenue.

“To make that connection in a 20-minute route is great for the future of the riverfront,” says Dave Willems. “The river runs so low, a lot of people go downtown and don’t see it. There’s some neat stuff there,” including several restaurants and the RiverHeath project now under development. “It will be great when we have the riverfront finished.”

Our first stop was Pullman’s Trolley Square on Olde Oneida Street (of course!). Inside, we scooted quickly past the old trolley on display and made a beeline for Nan Sorella’s wine bar. There we met up with the Willems. Dave, who was reminded of the outing from our Tweet, shared his professional advice on social media and company reputation management. Caroline Lasecki shared a copy of the daily paper, which featured Czarnik and his career coaching business. After we ribbed “Grand Chute man” about his 15 minutes of fame, Czarnik chatted about his success thus far in helping people find their life’s calling. Kenney and Wetter dished about the advantages of working downtown.

We bumped into other friends at Pullman’s, including Les Van Ornum of Merchant’s Choice Card Service, who arrived on his Harley, and a friend of a friend who was having dinner with a group of girlfriends before heading to the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center to see the musical “Grease!”

Some from our group hopped back on the trolley after about an hour. The rest of us caught up with it later and took the loop nearly all the way around again. That’s when we met up with the “Grease!” ticket holders on their way to the show. They broke into song:

Summer lovin,’ had me a blast
Summer lovin,’ happened so fast
I met a girl crazy for me
I met a boy, cute as can be …

By the second verse the entire trolley was singing along:

Summer days, driftin’ away,
To uh-oh those summer nights
Tell me more, tell me more …

It goes without saying we were in a party mood by the time we hopped off the trolley at Walnut Street. The trolley driver sent us off with a “CLANG CLANG CLANG” and we walked up a block to McGuinness Irish pub. There, we shared a plate of fish and chips with curry sauce, washed down with Murphy’s on tap, taking in the Irish atmosphere and the melodic sounds of the owner’s authentic accent.

Before long, half the group picked up the trolley to head off to another spot. The stragglers topped off the night with a trolley ride back around to Victoria’s Italian restaurant.

By 10:30 it was time to catch the last trolley back to our cars. We all agreed the night was such a success that we would have to do it again – soon!