Thursday, September 23, 2010

Street Walking

I find inspiration in things that other people do. Here are a few nice places I’ve run across in Wisconsin downtowns lately.

Of course this is just my 2 cents but I think proper infill is key to making the whole picture work. This is a new building or at least a new built façade that was well done to fit the neighborhood.  It's not that tough to make new buildings look old.

Public art is good. Not sure if there is anything special about this piece in general but I like the color and life that it brings to a space that is pretty much bricks and mortar.

I love what they have done with this bar. The front windows slide completely open which creates an outdoor bar. In the summer they pull barstools right up to the front window. Click on photos to see more detail.  Downtown Sheboygan.

The streetscape is huge, huge, huge to me. Planters, trees and streetlights make such a big difference in creating a sense of place. Scale is important.  Most city planters are much too small in comparison to the buildings on the street.  These are simple and grand in scale.  Nothing special as far as the containers go but the plantings are great.  I would ditch their logo but all in all a pretty good example.  It makes the street come alive. It brings natural color. I have yet to see a downtown with too many living things…

This restaurant is inviting. Beautiful façade, spotless windows, and when the place is open the front windows are filled with people enjoying a dinner. If it were mine I would always fill the window seats first. Notice the scale and placement of the overhead sign. More on that later.

A good street clock. A fitting addition to a historic streetscape.

Another good sign. Not oversized but plenty large enough to see when driving but especially walking. In my opinion the key to a successful downtown is to create a place that appeals to walking. Remember the size and placement of the signs when we were a movie set?  The overall picture of the downtown needs to get people out of their cars. Huge signs hanging off every building looks like clutter.  Not inviting when driving through. Think big picture view to appeal to motorists. Then think pedestrian when putting up signs. People on their feet are much easier to get in your store than people in their cars.

When I’m downtown I will see cars lined up for blocks waiting to get through Columbus. How many stop?  Not many.  We have great bones but no sense of place.  There is no life.  People don’t typically pull their cars over because they see a sign. They stop because they see a place that they want to experience in person. Trees, flowers and beautiful buildings will stop cars.  Not big ass signs.  Where is the sign on this business?  Can't really see it driving by but this business has been open in downtown Sheboygan for as long as I can remember.  Something must be working.  It's inviting.

Think big picture to capture people in a car. Window displays play a huge part in that. A simple, well lit window display catches your eye as you drive by. Especially in the evening. This entire historic building is intact which adds to the visual interest when passing by in your car. Now imagine this without the tree and the traditional streetlight. They add dimension, color and and a sense of style to the street.

Thoughts for the day.  Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Process

Making lasting changes downtown are going to take some time. If I didn’t believe in the future of Columbus I wouldn’t have taken my first risk downtown ten years ago. This town has huge potential. I felt that way ten years ago. I feel that way today. I wish wasn’t talking about potential ten years later but here we are.

We had a meeting Monday night with the CDA. A step in the process. It was an interesting meeting and I would guess everyone in attendance would probably agree with that. I learned about buy in. Hopefully we learned about the importance of a vibrant downtown. I learned it’s a process and things don’t happen overnight. Maybe we learned that we need to face problems if we want to solve them. I learned I have friends in Columbus that I want to keep.

Downtown Columbus could be incredible. That is why I am so passionate about our downtown. Columbus is one of the most intact historic small towns in Wisconsin. I know crap like that because I have this curse of being observant. Do you remember when someone came here to make a movie? Seems like that was a long time ago and it's neatly packed away forever as part of Columbus history.

Why did this happen here? For those of you that witnessed the filming of Public Enemies it was maybe the coolest thing ever in downtown Columbus. There are a lot of reasons it happened here.  For one thing someone that gets paid a lot of money saw something in this downtown that we take for granted every day.

People that don’t live here notice the beauty and historic integrity of our downtown. It is very unique but do we see it? These days it tends to be a bit overshadowed by vacant storefronts and “For Rent” signs but that can change.

Hollywood isn’t going to come in and change it for us again though. It’s our town and it's our turn. We need to change it ourselves. The only thing better than the movie would be if that excitement could be recreated every day in our downtown. I’m confident it could but things like that are not easy.

Click on some of these photos to see them in a larger perspective. We have great bones. Movie set bones. Michael Mann saw it and the time has come for us to see it too. This happened here because downtown Columbus is special.

To fix this we all need people to be a part of the community of Columbus. If you are a business owner here we need you to be a part of the business community. I’ve not always been good at that but we need to change too. We are a team with more in common than not but we often get caught up in our differences instead of what keeps us here. Columbus has the ability to move forward as a proud city but it will be a group effort.

What makes a star? Charisma, determination, talent, good looks, luck?  We have all that but this town needs to capitalize on it.

So all in all the CDA meeting went fine but we have some big hurdles to cross. Has doing this blog rubbed some people the wrong way? Sure. I guess expected that but it's not the intent. All I’m trying to do is open people's eyes. We tend to take things for granted right in our backyard. We have the makings of an outstanding downtown and a successful destination community.  It takes synergy to make that happen.

We need to fix it, promote it and work to insure the success of our neighbor. If they don’t succeed neither do we. I feel pretty confident there could be some positive things for Columbus coming from the frustrations of the process.  That is why we do it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

And the Survey Says…

Ok let’s see a show of hands. How many of us have taken time to read the results of the City Resident Survey completed last November? It’s not always easy to find time for this type of thing but it’s good reading. I’ll post a link to the survey at the end. This survey was conducted by city government to better gauge the thoughts of the typical Columbus resident. There were some interesting results in regards to the downtown.

Under the heading of Economic Development and Land Use 79% of respondents felt there are too few retail shops in Columbus. That may not be a specific statement about downtown but that is where you would most often find that type of business.

The following is a statement taken from the survey. “About eight in ten respondents supported development of family restaurants, downtown redevelopment, and small specialty shops. “ The chart on that page shows that 82% of respondents want downtown redevelopment to be a retail development preference.

Personally I think page 19 made the strongest statement about the downtown. “Three-fourths of respondents agreed or strongly agreed the City should promote development or redevelopment in the core of the community instead of annexing additional property.”

This survey was the data used to build the City Comprehensive Plan. The comprehensive plan has now been developed and I do feel city government has done a good job of incorporating this information into their plan. I have linked the comprehensive plan at the end of this post.

What I struggle with is the standard response I hear about downtown development. The consistent message I get from my friends at City Hall is there is no “buy-in” for downtown redevelopment. For some reason there is this caveat that City Hall needs to see buy in before anything can happen downtown. I’m trying to figure out exactly what that means but in the meantime I went on a downtown search of buy in. I think I found some in the photo above.

Here is some buy in. This property owner restored the retail space of this existing building and recently invested in another downtown property.

An out of town business owner is opening a new restaurant in Columbus. That’s good news and I would definitely call that buy in. Business owners don’t always have time to be at city meetings to voice their opinions. Sometimes actions speak louder than words and this is a good example of buying in with their checkbook.

A family business that has been buying in to downtown for over 100 years.

I can only speak for us but we have been buying in and buying in.  We've bought into our hometown business district until it hurts because we've believed in this town.  82% of City residents surveyed want downtown redevelopment to be a city economic development priority.  That is a very clear message of which direction to go from here.  This year I've watched business after business lock the doors and tape up the windows.  I personally would really like to see my friends at City Hall buy in to their survey and set the wheels in motion.  We've talked about it.  We've visited other communities. We've drawn up pictures.  Enough talking.  The time has come to act. 

Now here is a pretty good chunk of buy in. This new complex was a very serious commitment to downtown Columbus.

A downtown landmark restaurant that has been buying in for generations.  The historic downtown is one of the greatest assets Columbus has.  It is one of the few significant big pictures things that might stick in a visitors head about Columbus.  It should be our drawing card.  It's a tremendous asset that is being wasted when in reality it could be putting us on the map.  There are towns all across this country that would give their eye teeth to have the historic infrastructure that we have.  Some towns are building it from scratch.  You can keep looking to find something bigger but it's not there.  82% see it.

The business owners above are a sampling of people that have been buying in to downtown for years. Actions speak louder than words. These business owners along with others have been putting their money where their mouth is. It appears by looking at the results of the survey that downtown redevelopment is very important to this community.

The time is now to start the ball rolling.

Develop a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the entire downtown. It’s a tiny downtown. It’s not that tough to create a redevelopment district of the entire downtown including the proposed riverfront development. We have some major street and sewer projects coming down the pike that will have a huge impact on downtown over the next few years. The downtown needs to be positioned to survive that. It will be important for business owners to see a vision for the future.

People only buy in to the future. Put out a good plan and support will follow.  At this point the future is not very clear and and unfortunately the absence of a plan is not good policy to change that.

Need help putting it together? You know where to find me. Downtown.

There is a CDA meeting this Monday, Sept. 20th at the Community Center.  Meeting starts at 6:15 but Alderman Bomcamp and myself are taking a downtown walk at 5:45.  Any interested parties are welcome to join us.  Downtown is on the meeting agenda.

City of Columbus Resident Survey

City of Columbus Comprehensive Plan

Thursday, September 16, 2010

One Plus One Equals One

Columbus is a small town. Something like 4,500 people. What do we have. Maybe like 100 businesses in Columbus? In reality it is a teeny tiny town with an itsy bitsy business sector.  After all Columbus is now competing in a global economy.

For as long as I can remember the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Columbus Main Street Program have been on opposing teams. The real overall mission of each group is really not all that different. I’m sure the Chamber has obligations to the industrial sector that Main Street does not. Main Street has a historic development theme which may not be in keeping with the Chamber.

The bottom line is this. Both groups have one common goal. Making Columbus a better place to do business. A healthy industrial sector is good for downtown. A vibrant and attractive downtown is good for the industrial segment. People that work in the factories, hospital, schools and small businesses need goods and services that the downtown can provide. Business people like to come downtown for lunch and business meetings. Downtown shopkeepers need those big businesses to supply customers.

From the outside looking in it appears that both groups are competing for the same members, money and volunteers. It would also appear that both groups are struggling right now. Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m guessing both groups have 4 or 5 board members and need more. Both groups need money. Both groups are burned out and need new energy. Both groups need volunteers and new ideas.

Why not become one. We are all on the same team. A combined group does not need to be all or nothing. It needs to be a team consisting of different people with different ideas but one big common goal. Making Columbus a great place to live, work and do business. There can be a downtown preservation committee. There can be an industrial development committee. There can be a health care development committee. All with one common goal.

I could be wrong. I could be wrong about this point but I would bet City government would be supportive of a strong and focused business organization. The city distributes room tax and other economic development funds. Right now both groups are competing for the same money. Why not work together with one global budget and a singular mission.

Guess who pays the price for two business groups who are competing with each other? The business community. The actual people the groups are supposed to be helping.  Driving around our city should make that pretty obvious. Overall Columbus has seen very little growth over the boom years and downtown continues to fight a loosing battle.

We are in tough times. If there was ever a time when the community needed to be sending a positive forward message about business it’s now. Growth today is difficult enough when you are firing on eight cylinders let alone three. Both groups are asking for members and help. Response is minimal at best. I have a hunch that if one strong group emerged community leaders could be convinced to get involved. This one group needs to hand select business CEO’s, bank executives, small business people and community leaders to help make it real. Strong ROI kinds of people to participate in the building of a stable and successful organization with long term goals.

Keep the good parts of each group alive in the new organization but send one unified message. One really high quality professional brand for Columbus. One website. One schedule of events. One printed promotional piece. But most importantly only one mission. Making Columbus a great place to live, work and do business.

Which brings us to the question of the day. When it comes to recycling can you mix busted hard liquor bottles with smashed beer bottles?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is Downtown Columbus Historic?

One thing I’ve been asked a lot over the last few days is how do we change the current situation in downtown Columbus? I certainly don’t have the answers but I have some ideas. Nothing is simple and there are a number of things that are contributing to empty buildings and struggling businesses downtown.

The economy is tough. Very tough and that doesn’t help matters any. Most small businesses are being tested and we are no exception. We can’t control the overall economy but there are some things we can do to help infuse money into our local economy. Development is slow but helping making new downtown projects happen creates jobs, sells lumber, employs subcontractors and builds new equity in the downtown area.

I struggle with our downtown historic status. The entire four blocks of downtown are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I’m happy about that but I feel there is a fundamental flaw in how the district is managed that discourages development. Columbus has a local historic preservation group (HLPC) that oversees what happens in the historic district. Now I want to be clear I GREATLY appreciate what this group does and what it stands for. I know most of the board members and consider them friends. Every year they bring projects to life and Columbus is much better because of it. I just have a problem with one policy relating to downtown.

Basically there are two kinds of developers. One of them loves working in historic districts and the other one hates it. Historic districts tend to come with baggage. In a historic district you are typically required to comply with historic guidelines when you are doing building renovations big or small. To those of us who like that we see it as an insurance policy that someone isn’t going to build a pole shed next door to our historic property. The developers that don’t like historic districts see the regulations as a pain in the ass which is perfectly understandable.

So first things first what downtown Columbus really needs is developers that like working in historic districts. That cuts your options in half. Every project that I have done in Columbus required having my building plans approved by HLPC. Exterior building materials, doors, windows, awnings and paint colors are all subject to approval. I am more than happy to comply. The problem in Columbus is it appears compliance is optional.

So now the insurance policy is gone. Restoring buildings to comply with the requirements is more expensive than just doing any old thing. Those that comply go the extra mile and make that investment. When other property owners ignore the compliance it lowers the bar. That is unjust to those of us that do. From what I can tell there is little to no enforcement of the historic district requirements. 

Non compliant attributes are grandfathered in for decades. I don’t think the intent of that is to put rules in place that say “you can leave that the way it is for eternity or until someone comes along that feels like changing it“. When a property changes hands minimal non-compliant issues need to be addressed. Signs are a good example of typical non compliant attributes. Here is a good example of a historically pleasing tavern sign.

Legally if someone sells a building in downtown Columbus they must disclose that it is located in a historic district. So now we’ve made the disclosure but the rules don’t really matter. It’s kind of like shooting yourself in the foot but both feet at the same time. Historic developers are not interested because enforcement is lax and non historic types don’t want to have to deal with it in any way, shape or form.

So the question remains. Is Columbus historic?  It is listed but does anyone care?  If not why not ditch the listing?  The listing is very important to me but if it's important to Columbus then everyone needs be playing by the same rules. I personally think the downtown could be a killer historic district. Those communities that are successful at this understand the significance of the listing when it comes to the overall appearance and value of the community.  They don’t allow it to be voluntary. There needs to be some general compliance from all property owners not just some.

Kudos to the Kohl’s on a great back alley project. Yesterday they blacktopped their parking area. What a huge improvement.  If that entire alley was uniformly paved it would completely change the appearance of the alley. It raises the bar for everyone. Thanks for making a difference.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Comments - We Get Comments

It’s nice to hear so much interesting feedback right off the bat. It would appear that there are some people in this community that care. Sadly people that pass through Columbus draw an instant impression by what they see on their way through. Those impressions last for years and they are hard to break unless things change in a big way.

Thanks for the comments…

“This IS how people driving through Columbus see us. I have to say it is funny (the blog) in a sad kind of way.”

“It's about time someone steps up and says something! Downtown has turned into CRAP!!!! I wish I didn't live right next to it!!!! Its disgusting. Empty buildings, trash everywhere, loud drunks roaming around at night pissing everywhere! When is it gonna end?!?!?! “

“God bless you for saying it. Somebody has to. “

“I've lived near town for a number of years now, and cannot believe that for a city of such massive potential (location very near Wisconsin's second largest city, as well as right along a major highway), it only seems to look more seedy and pointless as each year passes.

"more seedy and pointless as each year passes". That is quite a powerful statement.  It never crossed my mind that downtown Columbus might be pointless but what an interesting thought.  Some communities see the importance of making a good impression to customers, visitors and potential investors. Usually downtowns are one of the first places people visit when exploring a community.

This is how a preserved building looks in a community that cares. Someone here felt the downtown was important to the overall vitality of the community.

This building…

Could be this.

And this…

Could be this. It’s basically the same building. I would bet the window dressing is all reproduction put on a fairly simple building.  Look at the difference it makes. Somebody cared.

The old corner gas station…

Could be turned into this. Someone here obviously wanted to make this corner beautiful and a productive part of the community.

Now this building is empty but it actually has a happy story. Columbus is fortunate that this company outgrew this property and expanded in Columbus into a new facility. Could their old building look…

like this? I think so, probably better.

This doesn’t just happen.

Someone has to want it. For a community that has been on the National Register of Historic Places and a Wisconsin Main Street Community for umpteen years downtown Columbus as a whole doesn’t look anything like these communities. Beautiful downtowns lead to a good quality of life.  That is a conscious decision that communities choose. Columbus seems to have chosen something a little different.

Leadership to make something like this happen needs to start at City Hall. Citizens make it work because their elected officials know that the downtown is important to them. If the citizens don’t care then I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

Streets need to look like this if you want shoppers walking them. Stand in downtown Columbus on a cloudy day and it looks lifeless and dying. No trees, few planters, no banners, street lights plastered with road signs, nothing of any welcoming nature. Combine that with windows covered in paper and rows of "for sale" and "for rent" signs and it’s not a very pleasing palette.

This could be Columbus. Unfortunately it’s not. I didn’t take these pictures just to put a blog together for Columbus. They are all cities that I have visited, enjoyed and remember.  Some downtown districts are memorable.  Is Columbus?  I plan to live in a community like this where the streets are filled with shoppers, families and visitors. No community is utopia but after being threatened by a drunk on Sunday afternoon and busted into on Monday morning Columbus seems far from it.

But it’s all in the details. Details matter. Weeds growing in the sidewalk matter. Newspapers scattered on the streets matter. Potholes matter. Peeling paint and garbage in the alleys matters. The clientele walking the streets in the evenings matter. Busted windows and slipshod repairs matter. I’m not seeing those things in the other communities you see here today and believe me I've looked.

Criminal activity is drawn to places where people don't care. Clean up and beautify a district it brings new investment, contributing residents and new business owners that want to be here. It seems pretty clear we are attracting people to downtown. They are people that walk our streets shouting obscenities in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, harass people, pick fights, trash our downtown and break into businesses.  In life we get what we ask for.

I was very pleased to see a couple projects currently happening. I walked by the former James Street Dining Company yesterday and was happy to see the windows were spotless, the tables were beautifully set and an Opening Soon sign in the window. Also the former True Value store has something going on as well. It’s a big space and when it’s empty it’s a big void. There has been a lot of remodeling and I see tables and chairs and display cases as well. That is outstanding news for downtown.

I need to send out a shout to someone Columbus is very fortunate to have. Steve Sobiek is your Economic Development Director. Steve matters. You need to let him know that. He is leading a big charge to bring new business to Columbus and some to the downtown area. These new business’s will need all the help they can get in this downtown right now. He is making good things happen and he deserves a pat on the back. Without a City ED Director like Steve it's not going to happen.

It’s not my motivation to be negative with this. It’s my motivation to open people’s eyes. Downtown continues to be a series of revolving doors for businesses and nothing is being addressed to fix it. Businesses cannot survive downtown for a number of reasons and this should concern citizens. People do not want to live downtown because it's an ugly scene at night. It's tough to get up for work in the morning when you were kept up by obnoxious jerks yelling in the streets at 1:00 AM.  A healthy downtown business and residential district will LOWER YOUR CITY PROPERTY TAXES. A worthless downtown will RAISE YOUR TAXES. Worthless neighborhoods generate crime and very little tax revenue. Sadly downtown Columbus is sliding in the wrong direction.

If you care about the direction downtown is headed send this to your friends, neighbors and fellow business people.

Which brings us to the question of the day that just happens to be a gardening question. What is the most beneficial time of the day to have your plants urinated on? Early morning or late evening?