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Thursday

April 2014

17

Group talks about Oconomowoc's future as a tourist destination

Group talks about ways to attract people, investment

City of Oconomowoc - Whelan's Coffee & Ice Cream filled up fast Monday night as a mixed crowd of area residents came to hear Alton Bathrick share his ideas on how to make the city a tourist destination. Bathrick was the featured speaker of a new group called Destination Oconomowoc that has formed over the past few weeks. The group said it has concerns with proposed developments downtown and called the meeting to discuss them and talk about ideas of how to make the city a tourist destination.

Bathrick went in many directions Monday night, rattling off his impressive resume from a career in economic development and municipal bond selling that spans a half-century. He talked about his history working with a matriarch of Oconomowoc,Catherine Clark, founder of Brownberry Ovens in 1965. Bathrick said he met Clark in downtown Oconomowoc and listened as she shared her visions of "making Oconomowoc great again." Creating a revival of attractions and tourist intrigue harkens to the 1920s when the city was referred to as the Newport of the West.

Bathrick spanned topics and philosophies including how investment in urban development compares to more rural communities. He mentioned discussions with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to create a program that would benefit development beyond residential to help smaller communities grow and attract people. He even threw out terms like the Community Reinvestment Act where funds could be realized to invest in Oconomowoc buildings.

But did Bathrick's wealth of knowledge sink in to the eager crowd or did it waft over their heads? Or did it sink to the bottom of their coffee cups because it was too heavy for the residents to comprehend in one helping?

Architecture, strategy

Of his many points, Bathrick's main one seemed to be that the city needs to pursue more consistency in building architecture, especially for new projects. "Architectural planning is lost with the new developments," he said, noting that the community center, proposed Fowler Lake Village and The Worthington apartment complex all have different types of architectural styles. At one point he referred to downtown Delafield's similar makeup that was influenced by developer Bob Lang. Bathrick said a good friend of his recently bought a home on Lake Nagawicka in Delafield. He said his friend said one of the reasons he chose Delafield over Oconomowoc is because he believes its downtown has more potential than Oconomowoc's.

But one resident who spoke at the meeting's question-and-answer after Bathrick's presentation said he doesn't want Oconomowoc to be so uniform. "Delafield seems like manufactured charm. I'd like to see a city grow up, even haphazardly," Jim Welch said.

Bathrick agreed that Oconomowoc doesn't need to be another Delafield, but said it does need more of a plan. The word strategy was mentioned numerous times during his presentation. Bathrick said the city needs an architectural strategy, a real estate strategy, a merchant strategy, a regional strategy, a nonurban strategy with financial might, a tourist strategy, an activity strategy and a vision strategy.

But are these things that the city has never considered? While he might not call them "strategies," Director of Economic Development Bob Duffy said the city has downtown design "guidelines" that target nine areas for redevelopment and give specifics on what is expected architecturally. He also noted that there is the city's Downtown Development Loan Pool that teams with First Bank Financial Centre to offer low-interest loans on expansions and improvements.

And the city's waterfront plan - which was updated in 2009 and recently amended to include the expansion of the Village Green - identifies ways to enhance this area of downtown and the waterfront.

In the last year the city completely revamped its zoning code to make the document more consistent with uses and easier to interpret in an effort to work better with residents and developers.

The city has also has redone its sign code and city process to help the process and be more consistent.

"I truly welcome the idea of having broader conversations about creating downtown as tourist destination, but I think that is a different context of what people were there to hear," said Duffy.

Fowler Lake Village

Some have suggested that a group of people came to discuss one development, Fowler Lake Village. Bathrick said he's against the idea of the development at its new site. "I don't want to slow things down, but give some thought to the plan; otherwise we will just be another stop on I-94," he said.

Others questioned the process behind swapping the developer's land on the previous site on St. Paul and Pleasant streets. City Administrator Diane Gard said it was the mayor's idea in an effort to make something happen with an approved development that had sat idle for several years. Duffy added that in both land swap cases involving The Worthington and Fowler Lake Village, the developers had something to offer the city.

When people questioned the openness of the city process, Duffy said the city has done everything except negotiate real estate transactions in open session. "This plan has been fully open. We have the legal right to negotiate real estate in closed session," he said.

Lack of communication?

Bathrick also said that the major problem he sees with lagging economic development is a lack of communication. John Gresely, owner of the Inn at Pine Terrace, said there needs to be more conversation on city projects. He said there's a big difference between the makeup of Monday's meeting and the makeup of a city meeting. "I think people aren't sure where their input goes (when sent to city officials)," he said. "I think there should be more of a conversation before we move forward."

"We need more public awareness," another woman added.

Duffy said the city is doing all it can to notify the public of meetings and open houses on the developments. He said the city posts the meetings on its website, and residents can sign up to be notified via email or text message. He listed seven opportunities for residents to comment either at open house or public meeting on the downtown waterfront plan alone, "and there will still be other ones. We may even bring in two additional city bodies to weigh in on this, and we still have to bring it through the formal adoption approval process to incorporate the plan," he said.

Gard said those meetings also don't include the city's "road shows" where the mayor and other officials visit local service clubs and groups such as the Downtown Oconomowoc Merchants Association (DOMA) and the Chamber of Commerce to present these plans and gather feedback. "On July 17, we approved the plans to move forward with these projects and the next morning we held a presentation for DOMA," Gard noted.

Too many groups?

While Duffy said he welcomes discussions and input like the meeting on Monday, the Destination Oconomowoc group creates another group in the city with input on downtown development. There is DOMA, the chamber, the Downtown Advocate Group and now Destination Oconomowoc.

"This a time when all these groups need to come together," he said.

Gard agreed. "If we remain a fractured group, it will be harder to accomplish things. I think people need to look at coming together collectively," she said.

There's been discussion about the chamber and DOMA working more together.

What's next?

A signup sheet was passed around for interested parties to submit phone numbers or emails for more communication, and there was discussion about creating a group that meets regularly to talk about "strategies" after the meeting.

For the city, Mayor Jim Daley said, "The focus right now is to move forward. We are certainly open to comments that can make city better."

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