West Bend’s Main Street will get a face-lift

It was a half-century ago that an embryonic non-profit redevelopment group called City Centro Inc. led the way toward angle parking on Main Street and brick pavers for its sidewalks. The red brick pavers created a unique look.

Bump-outs on the sidewalk were installed to slow traffic and make safer crossing for pedestrians. They have served their purpose, and it’s time to say goodbye. Pieces are missing, and our winter-spring heaves have made the walkaway uneven. In one way, life moves in generations. And the time has come for a re-work of Main Street and the unsafe sidewalk.

Serendipitously, the Brewery residential project has provided the added property tax dollars to accomplish a major redo of the street, the walk and street lighting. The old Lithia Brewery had also come to the end of its useful life. Over 50 years, no developer could conjure up a workable re-use of that cream city brick landmark. So, down it came – to make way for a residential development of 181 high-end units, along with some retail, a nice mixed use. It will be a beautiful riverside complex.

Its added property taxes will also enable the construction of a long-sought underpass of Hwy. 33 for pedestrians and cyclists. Finally, the north end of the commercial district will be connected to the main drag. Regner Park, our historic WPA project, will also be more closely linked.

The seven-figure Main Street renovation will take place in 2023. It will be concurrent with the on-going renovation of the west bank of the Milwaukee River downtown. The various phases of that monster undertaking will be completed in 2024.

The last bank renovation was finished two years ago and has drawn a lot of traffic. It has also drawn the stainless steel sculpture “The Bird” to its perch on the shoreline between the Museum of Wisconsin Art and The Bend theatre.

Many pieces are coming together to create an ever-more charming downtown, not the least being the new hotel and a number of redesigned eating and drinking emporiums.

It’s taken 50 years of public-private leadership and collaboration to create, when complete, one of the most sparkling city centers in the country. The current leadership in City Hall should take a bow for adding the expensive finishing touches.

The payoffs will be many:

  • An expanded tax base.
  • A contribution to a more livable quality of life that employers can pitch to incoming potential hires.
  • More recreation in the form of a fishable river and a landing for canoes and kayaks.
  • The river walkway as an addition to the city’s heavily used trail system.
  • Improved public mental and physical health through access to more outdoor non-motorized activities like cycling, walking, hiking.
  • A better story for business attraction.

To make the point, how many cities are lucky enough to have a pristine river flow through the heart of it? And how many have been smart enough to treat its water resources as valuable assets?

You may have noticed that downtown West Bend has been jumping now that the Covid threat has diminished somewhat. The Bend, for instance, has been pulling in audiences that fill more than two-thirds of its 340 seat capacity. Those events are well in the black. Even bigger names are contracting for gigs here.

The theatre is proving to be the frosting on a well-baked cake framed by the modern Main Street to the west and the fantastic Riverwalk to the east.

All this didn’t just happen. It took a lot of guts, far-sightedness and imagination to put all the ingredients together over a half-century of tender, loving care.

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