What do you do with three vacant buildings covering an entire city block in the middle of a town? It sounds like a head-scratching riddle, but for community members in Green Lake County, it was a source of inspiration.
In 2011, the county built new facilities for its courthouse, jail and county offices. That meant the old buildings — which are on the National Register of Historic Places — sat there empty. The three buildings totaled 70,000 square feet, covered nearly an entire city block, and were in the center of Green Lake. Everybody knew it would be a waste for them to collect cobwebs.
“There were a lot of conversations about what to do with the structures,” says Fran Hill, president of the Green Lake Town Square Board.
Considering the buildings are historic — the courthouse itself dates back to 1889 — it was important for any option chosen to follow preservation rules.
“The one option that we were really able to put together a solid plan for was to create a community center out of the spaces,” Hill says.
And that’s how Green Lake Town Square was born. The facilities were acquired from the county for $1 in the spring of 2012, and the doors were opened shortly after that in August.
Since that time, the center has blossomed into the heartbeat of the community, and the facility includes an art gallery, a yoga studio, a spa and a bar. But there’s one more space that was non-negotiable for inclusion in the new space — a commercial kitchen.
As the nonprofit organization that runs the center was retrofitting the spaces, the idea of a commercial kitchen and incubator for food-based businesses became a core focus. The founders then used the kitchen from the old jail, researched everything that was required for a commercial kitchen space, and got Green Lake Kitchens up and running.
Now food businesses in and around Green Lake can sign up for time slots to use the commercial kitchen. They also can rent storage and freezer space. Those who use the space are responsible for cleaning up after themselves, and they also must have a license in safe food handling to work in the commercial kitchen. Since Green Lake Kitchens is also a business incubator, it can help with licensing and other business logistics.
“Our goal is to have people graduate into larger businesses,” says Hill, adding that mission is coming to fruition, as evidenced by the numerous successful food businesses that have used and still use the kitchen space.
FreshFit Cafe started by offering its healthy carryout food items from the kitchen and has since opened a full-time location in Fond du Lac. Bee Bella uses the kitchen to create its popular beeswax lip balm. Peppercorn Catering was one of the kitchen’s first clients and has since developed into a thriving catering business outside of the commercial space.
Additionally, Green Lake Kitchens offers several programs to support foodies in the area — including cooking classes, farm markets, farm-to-table dinners and even an online cookbook.
As they look to the future, Hill and the nonprofit organization are thrilled with the opportunity to continue to support small business owners and shape the food scene in an area that many might deem unlikely for such culinary delights.
“We’re always looking for more people to come in and take advantage of this asset,” Hill says. “Our goal is to invite more people in to create more culinary businesses and get involved in other ways.”
From the flourishing businesses to the unwavering community support, Green Lake Kitchens and the entire town square are proof that the end of an era isn’t always a bad thing. Instead, it can open an opportunity for something even better to take its place.