Alliant Energy made the recent decision to delay the Dells Business Improvement District’s request to put decorative lights on the dam. I’m glad they did so, as this might give the BID members more time to consider if this is the best use of their money.
The BID committee is made up of Dells business owners who have created their own tax to generate more business opportunity in our city. BID lesson 101, any money they spend is of their own special tax and not any part of our city’s tax revenues. As mayor, people would complain to me about BID’s spending in the past, but when they found out it was from their own members they cooled their jets.
Still, I am not sure lights on the dam is the best use of their money. There was a plan in place several years ago to brand the Dells as the River Arts District. The whole goal was to create a downtown where locals and visitors both wanted to spend time and dollars in. I am not sure what happened to that plan but putting lights on a hydro-electric plant is like putting lipstick on a pig. At the end of the day, it’s still a dam. I am not sure anyone staying at Kalahari or Wilderness is going to want to leave the comfort of their resort at night to go look at a multi-colored dam.
I’ve said this before and I will say it again. The downtown needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. With a diverse population of stores, restaurants, bars, and businesses, everyone has their own ideas of what brings more people downtown. Unfortunately, those ideas are also as diverse and polar opposites as many of the businesses.
Several years ago, our city invested a lot of time and were fortunate enough to receive funding by the Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Convention Bureau to have several design and planning firms help us figure out what would work to make the downtown a year-round destination of its own. What did these consultants tell us? What brings in more people is well, people.
A handful of downtown business owners get that. They are the same ones who are constantly rolling up their sleeves and doing the leg work to bring new events to downtown, sitting on committees aimed at bettering our downtown, and working hard for everyone else with little appreciation. In short, these are the members of the BID Committee, and their faithful colleagues who stand with them.
Where the BID could best invest their money in 2021 is in a savings account for future years and start to build a real estate investment fund to buy out what isn’t working and not attracting locals and tourist out from the big resorts. The old guard of property owners that have stalled the progression of our downtown is dwindling. Take this opportunity to make sure what happened in the past does not happen again.
Nobody in our five-county area is coming downtown to play paintball, buy trashy t-shirts or shop at deals and discount stores. Neither are those staying at Chula, Kalahari, or Wilderness. These blighted places can survive because their business models are all about minimums. Offer minimum quality, in minimum effort, and in minimum expense. That is also why they have minimum interest in seeing any substantial changes to our downtown and it shows by what their places look like.
The city needs to step up the pressure on the violations and deterioration of signage, facades, and overall condition of these properties that continue to plague our downtown. That, combined with the BID’s real estate fund, could send a loud and clear message that a certain standard of business is expected. I will say it in very simple terms, buy out and drive out the properties that don’t fit the direction you want to take the downtown, and that direction should be up!
We should be applauding the Royston’s, Hickey’s, and Ricks families for investing in stale and blighted properties and turning them into new and exciting places for all to enjoy. We should also be celebrating the downtown food staples who bring out the locals all year round. Their places are clean, their signs and facades are attractive, their employees are friendly and they give us locals reasons to come downtown.
Trying to wait out the natural attrition of the business owners who aren’t involved in our downtown’s growth and image is not working. I encourage the BID to create business opportunities that are year-round, attractive, and sustainable and you will see our downtown thriving. Lights on a dam is a side show, and we have enough of those already in the Dells.
Brian Landers, a former Wisconsin Dells mayor, writes a weekly column for Capital Newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.