Bridget O’Connor never gave downtown De Pere much thought when she decided to launch O’Connor Connective.
It’s not that she wasn’t familiar. Indeed, she worked at St. Norbert College for more than a decade and was quite familiar with the downtown area. Whether it was that long-term association or the thought of a larger canvas elsewhere, downtown De Pere just wasn’t on her list as she scouted potential office locations for her new business.
Yet something — and someone — kept steering her back to downtown De Pere, and in late 2014 she found a historic, though very tired, space on Main Avenue. Six months and a complete gutting later, she could finally see the gem within.
“It was truly a tired space. I think it had been 10 different businesses for the past 10 decades” says O’Connor, who officially opened the new offices for O’Connor Connective in May. “But there is a real vibrancy here. There is a neighborhood pride growing.”
And it’s growing fast.
Downtown De Pere, which spans both sides of the Fox River, has seen a resurgence in interest as a place to work, a place to live and — perhaps most important to supporting the trend — a place to be. A host of boutique shops line both Broadway on the river’s east bank and Main Avenue on the west. St. Norbert College provides a stable anchor and Voyager Park and the Fox River Trail provide greenery and space.
Many historic storefronts have been preserved and creatively reused. Where new construction has taken place — such as the new Walgreen’s on Broadway — it has adapted to fit into the overall look of the downtown space.
Downtowns have become a hot area for development across Northeast Wisconsin, and Brown County has certainly enjoyed the trend. Downtown Green Bay has seen a renaissance led by multi-million dollar investments in new corporate headquarters and residential complexes, while the village of Hobart is building a downtown from scratch to attract additional investment in its community.
For De Pere, the resurgence has been driven by a realization of assets that have always been there, even when the residential and business trends favored moving away from the city core.
“De Pere has been fortunate to sort of maintain a mix of office, retail and residential,” says Kim Flom, economic development and planning director for the city of De Pere. “Obviously, having St. Norbert here has helped that.”
The college brought significant population to sustain unique restaurants and boutique shopping even when business patterns preferred locations along the highways and outer urban rings. Now, as downtown is seen as an attraction, the passion of business owners and residents to live work and play downtown has shifted from low simmer to rolling boil.
“It’s a very welcoming community that provides a great experience,” Flom says. “You can eat at a great restaurant, enjoy a craft cocktail and sample some world class chocolate and it’s all walkable.”
The “downtown experience” was part of what motivated Rich Starry to buy and renovate an historic building at 112 N. Broadway when relocating Starry Realty. The building was constructed in 1888 and had seen multiple owners and uses.
Starry stripped the main floor down to its barebones and restored the original ceilings and brickwork, creating a unique space for his real estate team. But the building is more than a real estate office; it has become its own downtown destination.
In addition to using the renovated space for his real estate company, Starry has also opened the building up as a community meeting space. The doors don’t lock up at quitting time. Private business meetings, weddings and other events have utilized the space.
A commercial kitchen from the building’s time as a restaurant has been remodeled and is used by Bridget Lowery, owner of 416 Cuisine, for crafting traditional, from scratch Italian cuisine for catering and carry out sales.
Starry plans to further the downtown community connection by renovating the apartments above the realty space, converting them to traditional lofts.
“I wanted something that was completely different than your standard waiting room and cubicles,” Starry says. “Everyone used to be downtown and it was really inviting. That’s what I wanted to bring back to main street.”
One of Starry’s fondest memories growing up was the family heading to downtown Green Bay each Thanksgiving weekend to see the Christmas window displays at Prange’s Department Store. Contributing to a community with that sense of place was part of his overall plan.
“I really wanted to be part of downtown and part of a broader community,” Starry says. “I wanted to also create the opportunity for others to get people to experience downtown.”
To support that effort, Starry has also hosted events in conjunction with the new EastWest Music Fest, Celebrate De Pere and the Downtown Art Walk series.
Across the Fox River, O’Connor and her business neighbors have taken a similar approach. O’Connor Connective is also using its space as a gallery and to host events. The “back door” of the company’s new space opens up to Nicolet Square, where the city plans a series of streetscaping and other amenities to create an outdoor gather and event space.
With those improvements on the horizon, property owners around the square have begun investing in improvements that will bolster the efforts. Standing behind her building, O’Connor points to both new and renovated buildings surrounding the square that support a variety of business and residential demands.
“We keep hearing about mixed-use development. Well, we have it here in De Pere,” she says. “The property owners are incredibly collaborative and keep asking ‘what can we do to improve the quality of working and playing downtown?’”
Not bad for an area she initially resisted looking at. It was her corporate neighbor, architect Chris Renier, who not only encouraged her to consider the building, but helped with the renovations.
“We have some very entrepreneurial people who have made a decision to create spaces for business that mean something and engage the community,” O’Connor says. “This just further fuels the interest.”
That growing interest in the downtown experience will be a critical component of keeping the momentum going, says Flom. She says the business community has been a key player in building up interest on both sides of the river, which then increases the impact of the cultural events.
Also boosting the resurgence: a demographic shift. Cities like De Pere are seeing interest in downtown surge as both millennials and retiring Baby Boomers are seeking a different lifestyle. The big house on the outskirts of town has been replaced with a desire to live, work and play in walkable environs, Flom says.
“Those factors weren’t there 10 years ago, but have really influenced the past five years,” Flom says. “For Northeast Wisconsin as a whole, that demographic shift has changed how we look at downtown. It’s now an experience.”