The Ladysmith Common Council voted 4-1, Monday to renew its participation in the Wisconsin Main Street Program at a cost to the city of $60,000 total over the next three years.
The city’s portion of the funding for the program at $20,000 per year will come from Tax Incremental District 8 and will fund the program through June 30, 2022.
The full cost of participating in the program is $40,000 per year, which means the Ladysmith Industrial Development Corporation and private donors will be looked at to match what the city agreed this week to contribute.
The decision came after about 90 minutes of debate with supporters acknowledging the program has floundered in recent years and others asking what has the city gotten so far during the last 6 years in the program.
Ald. Marty Reynolds, who voted for the spending after lengthy debate, questioned if downtown improvements have been the result of the city and private property owner investments rather than Main Street.
“I see most of the things going on being done through the city’s facade loan program which really has nothing to do with the Main Street Program. I don’t see that much we have gotten out of Madison with the Main Street Program,” Reynolds said.
The Wisconsin Main Street Program, which is administered by Wisconsin Economic Development Commission, is a comprehensive revitalization program designed to promote the historic and economic redevelopment of traditional business districts in the state. WEDC selects communities to join the program, which is part of a nationwide program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These communities receive technical support and training needed to ensure that their downtown districts continue to thrive as centers of community activity and commerce.
Communities selected to participate in the Wisconsin Main Street Program receive free technical assistance aimed at enabling them to professionally manage their downtown or historic commercial district to better compete with alternative commerce centers.
In Ladysmith, Main Street is led by city Mayor Alan Christianson, who is the local program’s executive director. He and his father, City Administrator Al Christianson, recused themselves from the council chambers during the debate and decision.
Reynolds said he has trouble seeing the $2 million valuation growth cited as having taken place in the downtown. He cited a 49.6 percent property tax increase this year on a Miner Avenue building he owns. He questioned if Main Street or chamber representatives are visiting businesses.
“I absolutely agree there are good things happening in the downtown. I just think the majority of the things being done are being done by the individual owners,” Reynolds said. “I am not totally convinced we have gotten our money’s worth.”
TID 8 is scheduled to be expire in 2025 and revenues it has generated returned to taxing jurisdictions if not spent.
“I think there is a lot of individual involvement. I don’t see a lot of push coming from Madison or the Main Street Program,” Reynolds said.
Main Street oversight committees have gone more than three years without holding a meeting.
Ald. Brian Groothousen told aldermen at the meeting the council can’t do everything. He called a “rebooted” Main Street made up of business owners an entity that can play a key role.
“I think they have lost a little momentum because some of their key players are out,” Groothousen said. “I think we are at the upswing here. I think there are some good people. I think there are even some new people who may be interested in doing things in town. I would like to see the Main Street Program, if given three more years, to reorganize itself and give us some ideas and help us.”
Main Street Program organizer Sue Moore told the council the group was very busy early the first few years. “But now we are kind of coasting. We haven’t had a lot of meetings,” she said.
Moore said three “very interested new people” want to get on board with a brainstorming session at no cost.
“The Main Street Program is not just about facade improvements and building improvements, although that is a big part of it. It is also promotions and promoting your downtown district and area to improve the businesses, and we have done a lot of things in regard to that,” Moore said.
Moore praised Alan Christianson, who as the Main Street executive director, she credited for doing a great job organizing car shows, summer Music on Miner live music events and a spring Sugarbush Festival.
Ald. Bill Morgan, who voted against renewing the city’s Main Street participation, said there are more cars parking at the library than downtown. He asked where you can go downtown shopping.
“What is going to encourage you to bring your family downtown shopping?” Morgan said.
Morgan’s comments were quickly and sharply criticized during the meeting.
Ald. Jon Fields told the council he has donated many hours organizing events, and often playing for free.
Reynolds said music events have been nice additions, “but they don’t revitalize a downtown.”
“The people I talk to haven’t seen the chamber people. They haven’t seen the Main Street people. They haven’t seen any of these people doing things,” Reynolds said. “I am asking how does it get revitalized. I am asking how do we get it restructured. How do we get it up and running again? We can’t be putting money into it if there isn’t any return.”
Reynolds said the people investing in the downtown are doing it on their own.
“I am not sure if we are getting $60,000 worth of ban for the buck, and that is just our portion for the main Street program. How do we revitalize it? How do we get it active again,” Reynolds said.
Moore is calling for more public meetings about Main Street, getting committees back to the tables and encouraging more new members to get involved.
“That is how you revitalize it,” Moore said.
“I think the best thing we can do to help revitalize it is to support it at this point,” Groothousen said. “We need to support that and let them do what they need to do. The mayor is the director of the Main Street Program. He has to say, ‘We have got this renewed. We need to get back on track. We need to get people back in places. There were committees that were assigned and set up. There were chairmen for the Main Street Committees. They need to reorganize.”
“The best thing we can do is support it, and we are supporting it from a TID [tax district] which is established basically to help increase the value and the tax revenue of the area,” Groothousen said.
Reynolds noted his property tax increase. He said he feels because of this tax hike he should be seeing some downtown revitalization.
“I want to see some growth and some activity in the downtown that is generated through Main Street,” Reynolds said.
It was stated the concerts are not being coordinated with downtown businesses, which are mostly closed when the music events are being held. It also was stated it seems it would make sense businesses would stay open to take advantage of the added foot traffic generated by the downtown concerts.
Most recent improvements cited in the downtown include DJs American Bar, Taco Theory, Berg’s Collision, La Casa Mexicana and Lake Avenue Auto.
“If we don’t see where those dollars are going, how does anyone else see it,” Reynolds said. “If we are not aware of it, how can anybody else be aware of it? Somebody needs to be out there pounding the gong and the drum about downtown, what we can do, what we need to be doing and what we are not doing. We need to have a leader, or somebody, doing that.”
Groothousen said Main Street is needed because there is no other group doing that.
“This is the group that is already there that maybe needs to reinvent itself. It is already place. It is already there. It is the group that can get that stuff done. If we don’t support this group there is no other group that is going to do it,” Groothousen said.
Reynolds told the council he truly believes the downtown has potential, but something needs to be done to attract business and invite customers to shop.
“That is what we need to focus on,” Reynolds said. “If you are working all day at your business and you are not making enough to hire additional people to work at night so you are open when the bands are there you are going to be closed. The majority of the businesses are stretched to the limits. If they have got enough extra people, they might put someone on at night, but the majority of them don’t have that.”