50 years of projects transform downtown

Let no one say that leaders in West Bend aren’t bold and forward looking. The complete rebuild of Main Street, its sidewalks and the Riverwalk are the latest projects in a long series of projects that have put downtown West Bend on the map as one of the nicest small city’s downtowns in America.

That is not an overstatement.

It took six months to complete both Main Street and the renovation of the west bank of the Milwaukee River. Citizens and businesses were extremely patient during the construction. They kept the end result in mind. That goal was capped off Friday with the ribbon cutting for formal reopening of Main Street. A nice crowd gathered in front of The Bend to celebrate, even though it was a cold and rainy day. The crummy weather did nothing to dim the enthusiasm for the new look of the downtown.

It was almost 50 years ago that Main Street was last rebuilt, including the underground pipes and conduits. The signature back then was the red paver brick sidewalks, which had heaved out of level over five decades. It was time to renovate.

A long list of elements have come together over the 50 years to create a pleasing city center. West Bend has become known for its quality of life. People want to move here, and they are filling up to 400 new apartments that have been built or are on the drawing boards. Businesses like Milwaukee Tool and Delta Defense have established new facilities and new jobs.

There are literally 100s of individual actions that have made downtown West Bend a better place. Here is a partial list of some of the biggest improvements:

  • Perhaps most importantly, the Milwaukee River was cleaned up. The Kewaskum sewer plant upstream was upgraded; industrial outflows in the city were plugged; citizens came together to remove truckloads of junk; and the DNR and Ozaukee Washington Land Trust preserved upstream watershed lands. The river is now used by many anglers.
  • Ten years ago the spectacular new Museum of Wisconsin Art found an ideal location downtown.
  • Ugly, unused structures were removed, such as the old condensery, a grain elevator, a toxic building for electroplating and a railroad dock facility.
  • The large Centrum Building downtown was renovated.
  • The Eisenbahn rails to trails conversion became an instant success when it was blacktopped. It is busy many hours of the day.
  • Five years ago a non-profit community organization restored the Historic West Bend Theatre, now known as The Bend Theater and is bustling with entertainment and community activities.
  • Perhaps second in importance is the city strategy to honor the Milwaukee River both upstream and as it flows through the center of the city. The new Riverwalk celebrates the natural beauty of the river. Not many cities are lucky enough to have a pristine river flowing through its heart.
  • Old Settlers Park has been rebuilt and is now a community gathering place.
  • The West Bend Redevelopment Authority stepped up for the redevelopment of the massive site of the abandoned West Bend Company.
  • Many of the community’s 52 sculptures have been placed downtown, often on the river banks.
  • City and state officials moved the jammed-up Hwy. 45 from downtown to a bypass on the west side.

The economic power of stitching all these elements together is that they create momentum for even more improvements. We are just getting started. Here are some the additional amenities in the works:

  • A new owner of what was known as the Ziegler Building is being refurbished for multiple business uses.
  • The new owner of the Brazen Head Pub is upgrading three buildings, including the addition of another restaurant.
  • Mountain Outfitters has led the way in upgrading the river-facing facades of three buildings.
  • Other building owners, such as The Bend, are upgrading their façade on the Riverwalk.
  • The District, the 177-unit development that replaced the old eyesore Lithia Brewery, provided new property taxes that helped to accomplish a renewed Main Street and an underpass of Hwy 33 for pedestrians and bikers. The District will also house a new bar and restaurant.
  • Almost every shop space downtown has been filled. The few empty ones will be filled in the near future.

Over the 50 years, more than a half dozen mayors, a dozen common councils and numerous private business leaders have worked closely together to pull off the transformation of the downtown.

The public and private expenditures have approached $120 million. That included lead investments from city hall, including $10 million for both banks of the Riverwalk and Walkway and almost $5 million for Main Street. Big investments from the non-profit sector were highlighted by more than $10 million for MOWA and about $5 million for The Bend.

That public and non-profit investment triggered the construction of more than 500 apartments and condo units downtown with an estimated value of more than $125 million.

That’s an impressive redevelopment track record. It could only have been done with a long line of leaders from city hall and private corporations.

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