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Jeff Barta said when the Business Improvement District disbanded three years ago, downtown Waukesha lost its engine that helped drive downtown.

The BID, after all, provided a contact person when new businesses came to the district, and it was there to market the downtown. The BID also helped grow the economy in the central city.

"We don't have that engine anymore," said Barta, who owns the Nice Ash Cigar Bar downtown. "We have to find a way to have that engine again."

Barta — part of the eight-member study team that included city employees within the community development department as well as staff at the University of Wisconsin-Extension — hopes a recently completed market analysis on downtown Waukesha, a community-led research project, will provide a clear direction for its stakeholders as well as a guide for business development.

The market analysis, which examined business retention, expansion and recruitment opportunities downtown over the last several months, identified business gaps and potential solutions to fill empty and new commercial space.

Vacancies a 'concern'

One area that stood out to Community Development Specialist Jeff Fortin, another member of the study team, is the number of vacancies in downtown Waukesha compared to the two cities it visited in recent months.

According to the study, downtown Waukesha's vacancy rate, as of December 2015, was 20 percent (35 of 174 storefronts are vacant), which is notably higher than Appleton's vacancy rate (8.5 percent) and Fond du Lac's (7.1 percent).

Of Waukesha overall storefronts, vacant or occupied, 45 percent are used by service businesses, 31 percent for retail and 23 percent for dining and entertainment.

"The BID helped recruit businesses, so the study helped look at how we can fill the void left by the BID," Fortin said. "Vacancies are a concern."

Fortin said when those communities have vacancies, they do a better job in presenting the stores in an attractive manner. Fond du Lac also budgets $50,000 of general funds to support downtown improvements and also holds a farmers market during weekday evenings. (Waukesha's market is held during the weekends.) Fond du Lac also offers programs to assist with start-up businesses.

Ways to improve

The study team, which noted there are more than 2,700 people working in the downtown area it studied, identified the following opportunities to aid downtown's development. That includes the idea of developing a downtown organizational infrastructure.

Such an approach could include identifying a point person to offer a monthly seminar for people opening businesses. The study said the city could help lead this initiative in cooperation with merchants and owners.

"The goal of the (community development department) is to be more involved and we could be a contact when new businesses come in," Fortin said.

The study team also hopes the Waukesha Common Council could educate itself in ways it can help support city investment in downtown. Those ways include replicating a point person for downtown, more effectively advertising facade grants, and developing a downtown resource guide.

More business mentorship and clean and inviting windows would also help in retaining and recruiting businesses, the study team concluded.

One resource that Appleton and Fond du Lac have at their disposals are a BID.

"The study highlights the need for a BID or some organization that works closely with the city for future planning," Barta said. "I'm glad to see two people from the city be involved in this. It's advantageous when we're all collaborating."

Fortin said while Waukesha provides entertainment options, such as Friday Night Live, a weekly music series that stretches across four months, Appleton, for example, has more of a variety of events.

"The diversity of their events stood out," Fortin said.

Finding opportunities

Steve Chmielewski, a community educator with the University of Wisconsin-Extension Waukesha County, who was also part of the study team, said downtown Waukesha's walkability should provide more economic development opportunities. He said the linear streets of downtown Fond du Lac and Appleton don't provide the character or walkable scope of Waukesha.

"There's a lot of opportunities down there," Chmielewski said.

Chmielewski said it's up to those involved to implement and use the study to better downtown.

The study was presented to various downtown stakeholders, residents and aldermen last week at Meli bar and restaurant in downtown. A followup online survey will also be sent to those who attended the meeting.

Their input will be added to the final study, which is expected to be released at the end of February.

"Everyone wants downtown to be successful," Fortin said. "This is our first step in a more unified front for downtown."

Barta called the study "a first step."

"Obviously, in order to make it fruitful will be the followup," Barta said.

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