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The two-block stretch of Front Street in downtown Beaver Dam makes up a small portion of what is considered Beaver Dam’s Downtown Redevelopment District.

This small portion of road gets the most traffic due to its connection to Business Highway 33.

Those two blocks worry Beaver Dam Fire Chief Alan Mannel. On Front Street, nine first floor storefronts remain vacant. Of those nine, two are registered as vacant as part of a city-wide vacant building ordinance. Mannel said he doesn’t know what is inside the other six properties.

“It’s going to be a heavy day if we get a fire in one of those buildings because the buildings have deteriorated,” he said. “To lose a block of Front Street is a real potential.”

Simply put, older vacant buildings are at a higher fire risk, according to Mannel. He said Front and South Spring Street buildings are so close together that if a fire starts in one building both neighbors will be affected.

Mannel said water sprinkler installations are important. In buildings lacking a monitored sprinkler system, a potential fire could grow unnoticed until flames are shooting out the windows.

In total, 22 vacant storefronts exist in the Downtown Redevelopment District making up about 12 percent of downtown’s commercial buildings and a combined total close to 164,000 square feet. If someone were to buy up every vacant downtown property, it would cost more than $2.6 million, mainly based on Accurate Appraisal’s 2014 value estimates.

According to data collected by Downtown Beaver Dam Inc. on Nov. 18, 2010, approximately 184 commercial buildings existed in the redevelopment district and 27 of those properties were considered vacant. Since then, two properties, 152 Front St. and 203 Front St., have been demolished bringing the current total to 182. The difference over four years results in a two percent decline in vacancies.

On Jan. 1, 2013, an ordinance was put into law with the involvement of the fire department, police department and inspection services. The law gives the city access to vacant properties. Property owners need to register their properties as vacant with the city, for which there is no fee. City Attorney Maryann Schacht said the ordinance was created in an effort to inspect what is inside Beaver Dam’s vacant buildings for safety concerns.

“Anytime someone has reported to me and said there is mold seeping through a downtown business, I go to court,” she said.

According to the ordinance, a vacant building is defined as a commercially zoned building that is more than 75 percent unoccupied and business has ceased operation. The owner of the property is required to register the property with the city within 45 days of its closing. Failure to register after 45 days will result in a $50 penalty every month the building remains unregistered until the owner registers with the city.

Inspection Services, a city-contracted service provider, is also responsible for notifying the owner of the violation.

Every current unregistered vacant building has remained vacant for more than 45 days.

Mannel said the fire department and Inspection Services are responsible for the inspection, but only for registered properties. Registered properties are usually inspected twice a year or on a case-by-case basis. He said–with the amount of vacancies downtown–the ordinance isn’t strong enough and unfortunately that may be the reason it is not heavily enforced.

City building inspector John Moosreiner is responsible for the enforcement and inspections of Beaver Dam properties. After repeated attempts to discuss downtown’s vacancies and the related ordinance, he declined to comment for this story. In an email he indicated, “As a contracted service to the city we have a company policy about giving public interviews or anything related.”

Schacht said on his behalf that the city is as aggressive as it can be in encouraging owners to register their vacant buildings and that most property owners pay their fines.

Some people like Mike Wissell are in the process of remodeling a distressed property. Wissell, who owns 118 Front St., said he is turning that street level storefront into a new office for Mike Wissell Real Estate LLC. A casual look by a passerby may not reveal the Wissell’s efforts.

Wissell is is a real estate agent and has sold two properties downtown in the last few years. He says downtown is in transition, but understands vacant storefronts are a hurdle the downtown needs to overcome.

His property is a smaller example of vacant properties that are works-in-progress. Other buildings that fall into that category would be the former Fullerton Lumber building, 209 S. Center St., which if funding continues, will become The Watermark community/senior center. Another property, the former St. Patrick School, 117 W. Maple St., is set to become Beaver Dam Community Theatre’s new home.

Wissell said his property at 118 Front St. needs a lot of work and time to complete. He thinks he’s not the only downtown property owner in this position. According to him, after the 2008 flood, businesses in downtown bottomed out and owners left. Since then it’s been crawling back to life, but another barrier exists.

A major street reconstruction is set to tear up most of Front Street/Highway 33 and Center Street this summer. Wissell said it’s a project that has been in the works for years and he thinks nobody wants to risk opening up a new business during a major street reconstruction. He predicts that once the construction wraps up, prospective business will drum up again.

“The buildings are easy to purchase because they are not that expensive,” he said.

In Josiah Vilmin eyes, affordable property downtown is a good thing. It could help correct other challenges downtown like non-local business ownership.

Vilmin, president of Downtown Beaver Dam Inc., said one way to stimulate effective business growth for downtown is to have local owners who care about their locally owned business.

Out of the 22 vacant properties in downtown, 13 owners live in Beaver Dam. The other 10 live as far away as Appleton or St. Louis. A reason for some people to hold onto one of these properties is to collect rent from the tenants living above the first floor.

Absent landlords are rampant in Beaver Dam, Vilmin said, and no one is putting a stop to it. He dosen’t know how or why it started, but it hasn’t slowed down.

“There is not a lot of focus on discouraging it,” he said. “If we could find a way to discourage that we could do a better job finding owners or businesses better suited for the downtown.”

From a business perspective, an empty street level storefront is adding no value and no foot traffic to downtown. According to him, the tools are there, but the following through is not.

“The perfect storm hasn’t come together,” he said.

Vilmin said vacancy and non-local ownership is an issue DBDI is well aware of. As a result, the group is collaborating on a course of action that will track business growth, vacancy rates, non-local ownership and with time achieve a goal downtown has been chasing since the 2007 downtown summit meetings.

They want to make downtown Beaver Dam a destination.

Ben Rueter covers Beaver Dam, Horicon and Juneau city governments for the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen.