WISCONSIN DELLS – Evolution is in the DNA here.
The entrepreneurs that have built the waterparks, restaurants, attractions, sports facilities and scores of shopping opportunities thrive on change.
That’s why this destination along the Wisconsin River and with more than 8,000 hotel rooms now accounts for more than $1 billion in tourism spending a year. And if the latest idea comes to fruition, the Wisconsin Dells area will take another step into becoming more of a year-round destination, something it has been gradually building since the Polynesian Hotel opened the first indoor waterpark in 1995.
City, tourism and business leaders are working on a plan to spend $40 million over the next three to five years to give the historic downtown a makeover.
The ambitious project — funded from room tax fees, grants, naming rights and donations — calls for public plazas, facade improvements, landscaping and wider sidewalks to encourage more outdoor dining and outdoor amphitheaters along the river. One of the plan’s centerpieces is a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot public market. The $6 million to $10 million pavilion could host year-round public events and become a showcase for state-produced products.
“We have to be creative when we look at the structural improvements to the downtown,” said Mayor Brian Landers, 44, a former Wisconsin Dells police officer. “My desire is to see our downtown grow and expand. It will be more modern, but we want to keep in mind our heritage and tradition.”
Officials believe the improvements could increase revenues for downtown businesses by 30 percent and provide incentive for businesses to become more year-round entities instead of closing or reducing hours between October and March.Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent here over the past 20 years to build some of the country’s largest waterparks such as Wilderness, Kalahari, Chula Vista and Mount Olympus. Other additions to the area have included zip-lines, golf courses, night clubs, spas, animal attractions and an outlet mall.
But now the downtown is ready to take its turn at rejuvenation, although that’s not to say there haven’t been improvements.
Over the past two decades, new restaurants, gift shops, attractions and a river walk have come to the downtown. And in 2006, the $2 million, 36,000-square-foot Just a Game Field House — which brings in basketball and volleyball players from throughout the Midwest — opened. In 2011, owner Dave Royston spent $1.8 million on a 21,000-square-foot addition that has helped draw 300,000 people to his sports facility each year, located just a block off Broadway, the downtown’s main drag.
A good chunk of those players and fans frequent the downtown before, in-between and after games.
“It just makes downtown a more inviting place to go,” Royston said. “The sooner the better.”
Visitors to the downtown during the winter can still find a hamburger served on paper at Monk’s, buy something sweet at Swiss Maid Fudge, get a souvenir at the T-Shirt Factory and peruse Alpha Beta Karma, a women’s boutique owned by Kelli Trumble, a life-long Wisconsin Dells resident, who served as the state’s tourism secretary from 2007 to 2011.
The redevelopment plan is designed to expand on the offerings, bring more people to the downtown regardless of the season, ease traffic congestion, add to the area’s cultural depth and to “elevate the look of downtown to more of a premium dining and entertainment district.”
“We have to have a real diversified product and experience in downtown Wisconsin Dells,” said Trumble, a redevelopment leadership team member. “I see great promise. What’s key is that every year we’re moving (the redevelopment plan) forward. This isn’t going to be a 15-year plan.”
Trumble’s shop and nearby Winnebago Fine Goods, which has been in her husband’s family for more than 60 years, are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays beginning in January but will reopen on those days this week.
The plan has 43 recommendations, one of which would close off part of Oak Street to create a public plaza that could include a fountain and space for music. Another idea would change the name of the downtown from Dells River District to River Arts District while a festival and event organization would manage entertainment in the plazas, amphitheaters and public market. Other proposals would orchestrate the business mix of the downtown, much like a mall, and create a transportation system that could shuttle guests from resorts and sports facilities to the downtown.
The plan was developed by Roger Brooks, an international tourism and redevelopment expert. Ten years ago, Brooks inspired the Wisconsin Dells Convention & Visitor’s Bureau to promote itself as “The Waterpark Capital of the World.” Brooks met with the Dells officials in April 2013 and two months later the city signed a $65,000 contract to have him prepare a “business and tourism development plan.”
Results of a feasibility study on the public market should be ready in a few weeks and could include multiple sites, not just a parking lot behind Wizard Quest. Romy Snyder, bureau executive director, said while some would like to see ground broken on the public market this fall, it likely would not take place until 2016.
Part of the funding will come from the room tax that was increased to 5.5 percent from 5 percent in January. The increase is expected to generate about $1 million a year, Snyder said. The redevelopment plan can be somewhat compared to Downtown Disney, a manufactured downtown near Orlando, Florida, that features dining, music and shops.
“This has always been here, but it’s absolutely the same concept and for the same reason,” Snyder said. “We want to create a destination and entertainment district.”
One of the oldest downtown businesses is the Showboat Saloon. The building, at Broadway and La Crosse streets, was constructed in 1907 and during Prohibition was converted to a candy and ice cream parlor. Jesse DeFosse has owned the saloon since 2002. He went to year- round hours in 2006 as a way to retain employees and now features live music and has an impressive lineup of craft beer, including 24 taps.
“Unless you’re an outdoor water park or golf course, to make a living as a seasonal business is very difficult,” said DeFosse, chair of the Business Improvement District and a city council member. “We’re not exactly flourishing, but we’re succeeding. It’s about momentum. Our biggest growth the last two years has been in the off season. There’s an insane amount people visiting here that need something to do.”