Community works to revitalize downtown
By Ronda Mollica
Not that long ago a typical small Wisconsin town had 10 to 20 businesses that would meet most resident’s needs.
This usually included a bakery, hardware store, variety store, one or two grocery stores, a couple of gas stations and maybe even a jewelry or shoe store.
But when those businesses felt the pinch of big box stores and the Internet, the traditional shops could not compete and empty buildings became the norm. When half a downtown is empty and unkempt, the remaining stores have a harder time looking alive and attracting customers and new business.
The Manawa Downtown Revitalization Committee was born out of these circumstances. After a couple of key businesses had closed and other empty buildings were in poor condition, the people of Manawa came from all corners of the city and banded together to keep the downtown spirit alive.
Spearheaded by John Smith (mayor of the city of Manawa and owner of Manawa Steak House) and Tim Trull (owner of Lindsay House Bed & Breakfast), the Manawa Revitalization Committee emerged in 2013 with the assistance of UW-Extension Community Development Educator Mike Koles and Waupaca County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Dave Thiel.
“The Manawa Downtown Revitalization Committee was created out of concern for our downtown and our city as a whole,” Smith said. “This was a time when the economy was still in a downward movement and we had lost a couple ‘anchor’ businesses in the city. That created an urgency to see what we could do to make our city more appealing to new business owners, new residents, and to make every effort to maintain the businesses we had remaining”.
“We also want to identify businesses that the city could support and ones that would provide shopping opportunities that we currently didn’t have, so people had to leave Manawa,” he said. “We felt if we could provide some of those identified needs we could keep our shoppers local and all businesses would benefit.”
Local residents contacted Thiel and Koles and they set up an informational meeting at the Masonic Center.
“From this the Manawa Downtown Revitalization Committee was born.” Smith said. “The Manawa Downtown Revitalization Committee’s function in the city is one of working with the city, school, and Chamber of Commerce to bring them all together with a primary focus on improvements in the city to make it a more attractive place for people to live, shop, and visit.”
The goal is to help Manawa become a destination location rather than a drive through location.
“Through the efforts of the committee we have seen partnerships grow between the school district, business community and the city,” Smith said. “It should be mentioned that this committee is made up of local business owners from within the city limits and from outside the city limits, residents of the city, school district employees, and city representatives all working to make Manawa a better place for all.”
“The Waupaca County UW-Extension and Waupaca County Economic Development Corporation helped organize and run meetings as advisors” Thiel said. “We assisted the group since its formation, and currently function as a resource for projects and committee organization.”
“Assistance came in several forms including a local trade area analysis, discussions on best practices of other small towns, a road trip to other small towns who are reinventing themselves,” Thiel added, “and currently introduction to Connect Communities, a program that helps local leaders leverage the unique assets of their downtowns and commercial districts, providing access to resources and networking opportunities to local leaders interested in starting a district revitalization effort.”
One of the first kick-off projects was the building of 16 wood planter/benches made by Little Wolf High School students and paid for by the Revitalization Committee. They also looked for sponsorship from area businesses and organizations. The benches are then sold at the end of the season with money going into the next year’s fund for benches to be built.
This also dove-tailed with the hanging of flower baskets throughout the downtown. Individual sponsorship and help from Crosscut Solutions Greenhouse, who built the secure lamppost hangers, helped bring new life to the downtown. The city of Manawa assists this effort by watering the baskets and the bench planters during the week. Weekend watering is done by a variety of volunteers.
Another project that brought pride back to the downtown was the painting of a long-empty building. A youth group from the Manawa United Methodist Church was given supplies and paint from the committee to update and preserve a former grocery store. Other business owners were doing their part to update their businesses, but when an old, empty, peeling store is in the middle of the town, a new coat of paint goes a long way.
Looking for ways to bring new people to Manawa, committee members Eugene Much and his brother Sheldon Much decided to create an event involving something they know very well. They and their extended family all pitch in on Friday nights in July to operate the free Downtown Car Shows.
The shows are from 5-8 p.m. and are held on Union Street, which is shut down for the event. Each Friday has a theme: July 1 – All American Night; July 8 – Gunner’s Garage Block Party; July 15 – Back to the ‘50s (dress the part!); July 22 – British Invasion; July 29 – Cruise Night.
For more information, call 715-281-6925, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook www.facebook.com/fridaynightcarshowmanawa.
The Manawa Revitalization Committee meets monthly at the Manawa Municipal Center with UW-Extension Community Development Educator Jessica Beckendorf assisting with meeting coordination. There are continuing projects, plans and fundraisers on the horizon in addition to networking with other communities.
“The Manawa Revitalization Committee has done a tremendous job with their downtown revitalization efforts,” Beckendorf said. “Their success demonstrates the huge impact that dedicated citizens and community partnerships can have.”
Since 2013, several new businesses have made Manawa their home. Bridge Street Salon, Winemaker’s Daughter, Oh My Goodness, Creation Station, and soon-to-open, Hello Beautiful Boutique have changed the downtown from sleepy to vibrant. Also, an existing business, The Flower Pot, remodeled and moved into an empty downtown building.
Members of the Downtown Manawa Revitalization Committee believe that action brings reaction and hope that their efforts have helped stimulate others and will keep Manawa a destination location.
Ronda Mollica is a member of the Manawa Downtown Revitalization Committee.