The Main Street Shuffle

By: 
Joyce Coates
Enterprise Staff
The more anything improves and the better it looks, the more its imperfections stand out. The same is true for cities in Benton County whose vacant, abandoned or neglected storefronts detract from the otherwise positive impressions the unique amenities and infrastructure improvements create. 
Main Streets, in Cole Camp, Lincoln and Warsaw - and thousands more cities nationwide, represent the main thoroughfare through their respective central business districts and reflect the health of their local economy. Main Street storefronts with entryways at street level typically include one or more display windows that function to “attract visual attention to a business and its merchandise” (wikipedia.com).
Curb appeal is a concept not only for residential neighborhoods. Curb appeal planning is one of the “10 Things Successful Small-Town Downtowns Do” (@GreggMcLachlan on Twitter). People driving their vehicles through town should focus on the road, but sidewalks are made for walking. “Beautifying the storefronts, sidewalks and roads are critical to creating pedestrian curb appeal. Successful towns create curb appeal,” McLachlan said.
To give credit where due, a few of his suggestions for adding curb appeal have already been done in our cities: window boxes, planters, sandwich boards, awnings, benches, and sidewalk art.
Of course, improving our Main Street esthetics requires coordination and collaboration among property owners, city and county officials, non-profits and the private sector. Storefront vacancies occur for various reasons. Small businesses close when they cannot compete with larger retailers. Owners retire or die, and the property does not sell; investor-owned properties go without renters for extended periods.
A report on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website (https://www.epa.gov) describes how a small town (pop. 2,900) in New York state with a growing number of empty storefronts revived its downtown area. As a first step, members of the town’s development program gave private developers an inventory of existing downtown buildings that included “physical characteristics, rental rates, ownership, and identification of tax-delinquent properties and those near foreclosure.”
Unfortunately, no known list exists of the numbers and types of properties in Benton County’s downtown areas, although city planners and potential investors would likely find such a list helpful. 
A preliminary search online identified only six of the currently vacant buildings for sale or rent and one vacant lot on West Main Street in Warsaw: 109, 137 (lot), 216, 220, 221, 226 and 317; two vacant buildings on Warsaw’s East Main Street: 924 and 932. 
Cole Camp’s Chamber of Commerce counts four vacant buildings in its central business district (Main and Maple Streets). Only one listing in Lincoln was found online, a vacant storefront building at 613 Hwy 65.
Many small towns with populations comparable to cities in Benton County have found solutions to their vacant storefront problems. The University of Wisconsin Extension, Center for Economic Development, published a 2017 study, “Creative Uses for Downtown Buildings in Small Towns,” “to offer a sample of creative ideas that are bringing activity back to small town downtowns.”
Some ideas among the several covered in the UW study have potential as ways to repurpose vacant Main Street storefronts, and spark interest in new business for Benton County. They are:  
•A Pet Adoption Non-Profit to help the community, downtown area, and the Humane Society. It encourages people to walk downtown, facilitates conversation, and connects them to the community.
•An Artistic Studio and Showroom that becomes a stop for tourists and locals who may purchase the artworks.
•A Pop-Up Shop whereby the community supports new businesses during the startup phase and then buying from the new local retailers. It helps keep the downtown area vibrant and creates a strong retail and service industry. Retailers open for a short period to test the level of community support.
•A Marketplace for local artists and retail.
•A Bed & Breakfast Lodging place for visitors seeking a getaway with opportunity to explore Main Street and enjoy the small-town atmosphere and amenities.  
No doubt, interested parties in Benton County can, if they will, come together to find solutions, and produce results as good or better than the ones presented above. 
 

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