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September 2014

20

Oconomowoc auto dealer improves look of Wisconsin Avenue building

O'Connor worked with city's facade program

City of Oconomowoc - Director of Economic Development Bob Duffy had a big check for new business owner Jim O'Connor on Monday.

The check wasn't one of those giant commemorative ones that boast larger-than-life numbers and dollar signs, but it was big enough. The city awarded the owner of the new auto dealership on Wisconsin Avenue $5,000 for the improvements he's made to the building's facade. Perhaps you noticed them when you drove by - they're pretty big.

O'Connor has been in the auto sales business since the 1970s, establishing Lomira Auto in that community north of Oconomowoc in 1982. He later sold his majority interest in the company to two key employees in 2000 and soon after decided to start another venture closer to home.

The owners of the property at 740 E. Wisconsin Ave. approached O'Connor about a year ago to see whether he had interest in operating a dealership in the space that once housed Auto Connectionz. In summer O'Connor began a major renovation of the structure, resulting in the completely different look today.

Unique to O'Connor's story is that he doesn't own the property; he's leasing it. He said that with today's market, he thinks he will benefit with the investment he's made to the property without owning it. While he declined to disclose specific costs of the renovation, it's clear it's more than $10,000; $5,000 is the most the city will award for improving a building's facade.

Years ago, Duffy began the facade program, a pool of grants available to businesses for improving their building's exterior. Applicants can earn up to $5,000, but have to spend $10,000 or more to get there, Duffy explained. The money comes from Community Development Block Grant funding through Waukesha County that is distributed through two- to three-year cycles. When it's an off year, Duffy said he was able to use some taxpayer dollars for the program. He said the increased property values and overall aesthetic improvement from the facades is a justifiable reason to use the levied money.

Duffy said the city has assisted in funding improvements to 23 buildings in downtown Oconomowoc from 2008-12.

"The façade grant program has provided $72,950 since implemented. The availability of the façade program has realized $453,895 of private investment to assist in downtown revitalization efforts. The result has been, for every dollar of public grants funds provided, there has been $6 of private investment into downtown Oconomowoc," he said.

A couple other examples of façade improvements are the Risk and Insurance Services Consulting (RISC) building and Sherpers. O'Connor's building is the most recent example of the program Duffy said he wishes more people would take advantage of.

O'Connor said the hope is to have his business open by Jan. 18. When asked why establish the auto dealership in Oconomowoc and down the street from much larger competitors, he had lots of reasons.

A lifelong resident of the city, O'Connor said he wanted to do something to help improve the hometown he already regards as a beautiful community. And as far as competition, O'Connor said there are numerous things that set him apart from others, including the personal customer service he offers. He also said with the advent of the Internet, the car-buying culture has changed. His business directly caters to the online shopper who might not have time to comb through car lots.

Joining O'Conner at the Wisconsin location is Geoff Wold, who has been in car sales for 10 years, and O'Connor's daughter, Laura. Laura O'Connor's background is in social work, but said she was in a transitionary period in her career and decided to change gears.

"When he started the dealership, I wasn't even born yet. But I can remember as a girl going to work with him and getting to wash cars and follow him around. I think this will be a great opportunity, and I don't want to look back and say I wish I would've taken the time to work with him. I love watching him work with people and how personalized his philosophy is," she said.

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