Racine, Wisconsin remains optimistic about economic development - Paycheck

Racine, Wisconsin remains optimistic about economic development

   Over the last four years, Racine, Wisconsin has experienced phenomenal economic growth. Each new year brings more prosperity to the city of nearly 80,000 people living along the scenic western edge of Lake Michigan. Then COVID-19 hit.

   “Downtown has remained resilient,” said Kelly Kruse, executive director of Downtown Racine Corporation. “Yes, definitely all businesses have struggled, but slowly things are getting back to a new normal.”

   That new normal Kruse speaks of has been quite an adjustment for former Wildcat BBQ owner John Brownewell. He had to close his old-style barbecue joint earlier this year in part because of financial woes created by the virus.

   The issues Brownewell experienced in his business began when road construction projects got under way near his restaurant. When the construction was completed and the restaurant could reopen, panic-buying related to the virus caused meat prices to skyrocket. By that time, market value for beef brisket, one of his staples in the restaurant, was $8.50 per pound. Previously he had been paying $3.50 per pound for the same cut.

   “When we slow cook meat, half the weight is lost, so as a business we are paying for extra pounds that we can’t sell,” Brownewell said.

   He is now searching for another job after being forced to close the doors of Wildcat BBQ.

   “This is tough because I put a lot of work into it,” he said. “It hurts but it was out of my control. But people have been very supportive.”

   According to Kruse, Racine saw nine new businesses open their doors in 2016; 20 new businesses in 2017; 23 new businesses in 2018; and the highest number of new business openings ever in 2019:  24.

   “Pre-COVID downtown was on the rise,” Kruse said. “In addition, we had 119 programmed dates in 2019 and 130 were planned for 2020 until COVID hit.”

   Programmed dates are dates events are planned downtown. The city’s goal is to have 200 programmed dates each year, Kruse said.

   “The DRC has been working extremely hard at creative solutions to encourage people to support downtown,” Kruse said.

   Getting people to visit downtown entailed weekly Zoom calls with merchants and purchasing picnic tables for Monument Square to encourage outdoor dining. The city has held scavenger hunts, yoga and live music all outdoors. Touchless hand sanitizer stations are now on nearly every block in the city and sidewalk café license fees have been waived.

   “Times like these force everyone to change, and with change always comes opportunity,” Kruse said.

   Megan Haapanen, pharmacy manager at Lakeview Pharmacy in Monument Square, has noticed decreased foot traffic in the pharmacy and store, but, like the city’s business leaders, she and her staff continue to find ways to attract customers and keep their city strong.

   “We have tried to adapt to our patient’s comfort level with getting out by offering free delivery and curbside pickup,” she said. “And the DRC has done a great job of promoting new activities that fall under social distancing guidelines so that people feel safe and comfortable returning to downtown. We are all cautiously optimistic that downtown, like the rest of the country, will recover from this and come back stronger than ever.”

Mary Hookham

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