How can we revitalize Ellsworth's downtown districts?
"Envision. Enhance. Enjoy. With your input, these three simple words can take on a new meaning for the Ellsworth, WI community. From the business and restaurant options you wish for, to the recreation, activities, and events that would draw you to downtown—This is a space to share your ideas for strengthening our downtown, leveraging our community's assets, and creating enjoyment for all."
That is the introduction for the "Ellsworth: Envision. Enhance. Enjoy!" group created by the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce in connection with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's Connect Communities program.
Connect Communities provides technical assistance, access to financial and technical assistance programs and networking opportunities to communities who want to revitalize their downtowns or urban commercial districts.
"It's maintaining and enhancing what they already have, but who don't have the money for a full-time director," WEDC's Mark Tallman, a community project manager of Wisconsin's Southwest Region, said last January.
Connect Communities is a complement to the WEDC's successful Main Street Program.
Menomonie is the closest designated Wisconsin Main Street.
Connect Communities is not a grant program, but it can facilitate a town finding grants.
The program follows a four-point approach, Tallman said: organization, promotion, economic restructuring and design.
Chamber Director Russ Korpela said Ellsworth is one in 50 Connect Communities in the state, which provides access and collaboration to communities roughly the same size and with roughly the same resources.
What are the benefits of Connect Communities?
• Creating a sustainable community increases the tax base, increases property values, and sustains population growth.
• Stimulating the local economy by improving visibility for businesses, increasing customer traffic, and growing profits and business value.
• Creating a strong quality of life with an enhanced marketplace, more job and career opportunities, more social and cultural offerings, and pride in the community.
"If business thrives, the community thrives," said Chamber Administrator Kim Beebe. "Small intimate downtowns where people know you and everyone says hi" also draw people to town. "Local residents will feel more connected to the business community."
Every community has its challenges to economic development, sustainability and growth, and Ellsworth is no exception.
Some challenges the county seat faces include:
• High traffic makes downtown difficult for pedestrians and recreation. Ellsworth is the intersection of four major highways (10, 72, 65 and 63).
• Hilly terrain, which presents challenges when building large facilities.
• Shortage of affordable housing
• Aging and deteriorating properties
• Limited turnkey commercial space. Strip malls developers are not beating down Ellsworth's doors.
• Tourist amenities (other things to do in town)
• No big flag hotel
• No event space in town for groups larger than 40
• Limited amenities for residents, such as biking and walking trails
• Shortage of public art
• Shortage of green space and trees downtown
• Lack of organizational resources for entrepreneurs
• No Regional Business Fund access
And while every community has challenges, each also has attributes which make it unique.
Some of the things Ellsworth has going for it are:
• High visibility/high traffic. Those four major highways, while challenging in some ways, bring 15,000 vehicles through town each day. The goal is to figure out how to get those people to stop in Ellsworth.
• About 170,000 visitors go to the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery annually
• An active business community
• Unique natural assets and beauty
• Expanded economic reach; located in the "20-mile donut" in which 250,000 people could be here in 20 minutes.
• The median household income is $75,000
• Fifty percent of the county's residents have a 2-year degree or higher
• High profitability rate due to Twin Cities proximity
The Chamber Connect Communities Committee's focus is on the planning, development and revitalization of Ellsworth's downtown district.
Beebe asked a recent Chamber gathering to picture an Ellsworth with residents outside, having coffee, visiting businesses and with each other, enjoying life out and about.
"We're going to get that back!" she said. "This is all inclusive. Downtowns are for everyone."
Many initiatives to engage people in the process will be planned, such as town hall meetings and business happy hours.
"We need to harness and maximize the assets we already have," Beebe said.
She acknowledged the downtown is comprised of three distinct corridors: Uptown, Midway and East End. The Committee has been working to compile a database listing hard assets within the downtown business corridor, which will help property owners fill vacancies faster, connect entrepreneurs with appropriate spaces and renters with housing options.
"We don't want a lot of empty storefronts in town," Beebe said. "It just looks depressing.
"In the old days, pie and ice cream socials were held on the courthouse lawn, street dances, socials at church, etc."
One aspect of revitalizing the downtown district uses an idea called placemaking, which is a multi-faceted approach to utilizing public spaces, capitalizing on community assets to create inspiring, entertaining and creative public spaces.
Some ideas kicked around are bringing back a farmers market, hosting pop-up picnics, beautifying public spaces and bringing events and activities to downtown.
"Imagine people driving by and wondering what the heck is going on," Beebe said. "It's the sitting on the front porch and visiting concept."
"We're not fooling ourselves," Beebe said. "This is just the first year. It could take five, 10, 20 years."
Long-term goals identified include:
• Making the Main Street Summit Park entrance more visible and accessible
• An interpretive walking trail/boardwalk to connect the two downtowns with the highest traffic anchor (the Creamery).
• Pocket parks and greenspace
• Facade improvements
• East End development
• Envisioning future projects with the Village
So how will this all be done?
The Chamber will continue to build and strengthen relationships with local partnerships, such as the Village, business and property owners, financial institutions, consumers, civic clubs and the school district.
A community awareness campaign is in progress, which will include a survey. Funding resources will be researched and a renewed focus on entrepreneurship is planned.
Residents can get involved by joining the "Ellsworth: Envision. Enhance. Enjoy!" Facebook group or an action group, taking part in surveys and events and sharing the efforts.
"We want to be a hub for entrepreneurs who want a more 'rural way of life,'" Beebe said. "This is a legacy-building initiative."
To learn more, visit ellsworthchamber.com.