Council approves strategies to attract business to downtown, connect with Hispanic residents

By Michael S. Hoey


Capitalizing on the retail draw of the big box stores east of Interstate 43, building senior apartments and creating access to Lake Comus are among the recommendations in a strategic plan for Delavan’s downtown.

The Delavan Common Council approved a strategic plan for downtown May 14 and now plans to establish a core “work team” to carry out some of the recommendations in the plan.

The council authorized Vandewalle and Associates to create the plan last summer at a cost of $30,000 – $20,000 of which was paid for by a Community Development Block Grant.

The motion to formally adopt the strategic plan passed 5-1 with Alderman Bruce DeWitt opposed. DeWitt said he is not against rehabilitating the downtown but is concerned about potentially including the rehabilitation of the Israel Stowell Temperance House in the plan. DeWitt said the Temperance House is historic and could be an asset to the downtown but he opposes using public funds to rehabilitate it.

Mayor Mel Nieuwenhuis said he believes the intent is to rely on donations and grant money. Later John Finley, chairman of the rehabilitation committee, said the committee does not intend to use public funds for the project. DeWitt said the project is listed as part of the downtown Tax Incremental Finance District and the wording of its inclusion in the strategic plan made it seem possible that public funding could be used for it.

The plan is designed to identify challenges and issues facing the downtown, offer opportunities to bolster the downtown as a business district, provide vision for the downtown’s future, and identify ways to achieve the vision. It is not a detailed land-use plan with specific recommendations for every property. It is a strategic plan that focuses on programs, initiatives, and “catalytic” projects to improve the downtown through targeted investments and actions.

The plan is designed to complement the city’s comprehensive plan and provide ideas that dovetail with the newly created Tax Incremental District No. 5 for the downtown area.

Market data in the plan indicates Delavan has a shifting demographic profile, a powerful regional retail sector, and a small local population that is within two hours of 12 million people.


Changing demographics

An indicator of the shifting demographics is the addition of 800 new Hispanic residents between 2000 and 2010. The Hispanic population makes up nearly 30 percent of Delavan residents and Hispanic residents tend to be younger than non-Hispanic, meaning Delavan appears to be a location of choice for Hispanic families.

The study also indicates the only age group in the city that is growing is 65 and over. The study suggests making efforts to keep aging baby boomers in the community and finding ways to attract younger people to the community.

Median incomes levels in Delavan are below average compared to county and statewide numbers, but many surrounding areas have high levels of wealth making it important to focus businesses on both markets.

Retail sales per capita in Delavan are nearly four times the state benchmark primarily because of the retail businesses near Highway 50 and Interstate 43. A challenge for the downtown, according to the plan, is finding ways to capitalize on those retail sales and attracting customers to the downtown along with the big box stores.

According to the plan, homes in Delavan are inexpensive compared to state and county averages, and the city has a high percentage of rental housing. The study also recommended a high-quality senior apartment project near the downtown that could increase foot traffic.


Assets, difficulties

The plan identified the downtown’s assets as its historic charm and character, Comus Lake, and its high quality, authentic and long-standing anchor businesses.

Issues and challenges identified by the plan include a lack of connection between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic business communities, the vacant hotel, a lack of access to Comus Lake, vacant storefronts, some buildings in poor condition, competition with surrounding communities, a lack of signage directing people to the downtown from the interstate, and a lack of coordinated marketing for the downtown.

Recommendations for addressing property deterioration and vacant spaces included in the plan include launching a building improvement funding program, implementing a design assistance program, creating an entrepreneurship support network, creating a center-point for marketing downtown space, focusing on attracting small office and personal service businesses, filling vacant spaces, and building on the downtown’s reputation for high-quality niche retail offerings.

Recommendations for making the downtown a destination include creating access to Comus Lake, embracing the downtown’s unique history, reviving Delavan’s history as an arts colony, making Delavan a food destination, capitalizing on the Phoenix Park Band Shell and hosting more events downtown.

Recommendations for embracing the Hispanic community include organizing Hispanic business within the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Association, supporting Hispanic events and celebrating Hispanic food.

Other recommendations include creating more food-related events and attracting more businesses that could be regional draws.

Potential projects identified by the plan include rehabilitating the Temperance House, creating a regional specialty food market, making Delavan a trailhead for cycling, positioning Comus Lake as a destination for paddleboats, sailing, fishing, and other water activities, and finding a use for the vacant hotel.

City Administrator Denise Pieroni said the next step called for by the plan is to establish a work team. She said Nieuwenhuis is expected to appoint the team in June or July. Once a team has been appointed, a timeline for executing the strategic plan can be discussed.


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