WisBusiness: Downtown La Crosse enters new phase of renaissance

By Gregg Hoffmann

La Crosse – With a new Logistics Health building only a couple months away from completion, and some renovation projects underway in the historic area, downtown La Crosse seems poised to start a new phase of a renaissance which actually began more than a decade ago.

“This really started in the early 1990s and before, with some public investments in the levy and Riverside Park, the Radisson and La Crosse Center area, that were combined with private partnership investments,” said Tim Kabat of the city planning office.

Downtown Mainstreet Inc., a private, non-profit organization founded by business people and some of the financial institutions, developed the original city vision plan and worked with city hall and other public groups to initiate the river walk and other projects in 1993.

The investments have resulted in increased property values of around $40 million, Kabat said. Wisconsin Trails Magazine picked downtown La Crosse as the best downtown renovation in the state in 2002. The area also was one of five in the nation to be designated for a Great American Mainstreet award.

Downtown should receive another big boost this summer. Logistics Health is completing a new headquarters that will house its 500 or so employees, a restaurant and some retail space. There already are rumblings about a second building or addition next to the headquarters, perhaps to start next January.

That project is on the riverfront, in the area where some Cargill grain elevators long stood. Another longtime fixture in that area, Piggy’s Restaurant, moved just a few blocks south at 501 Front Street and made $4 million in renovation. It also has added a tenant in the Wine Guyz, just east of Piggy’s.

One catalyst for the development along the riverfront has been a second bridge over the Mississippi River. Near that bridge a Hertz car rental agency moved into the former Greyhound bus depot. Designer Exteriors set up shop in a building at the corner of Third Street and Cameron Avenue. Eversole Motors recently built a new building along Third Street, between the two bridges, for its used-car operation.

If you move inland a couple blocks to Third Street, two renovation projects are nearing completion. T.J. Peterslie, called a “pioneer” in downtown development by Kabat, has renovated the old La Crosse Furniture to the tune of around $225,000 and plans to add retail space on the floor level and residential space above.

Just a few store spaces to the north, Phil Addis is renovating the former Rowley’s Building.

Once “Low Rent” District

Peterslie first opened a boutique on Pearl Street when it was considered the “low rent district” of town in the early 1970s. In fact, he paid only $50 a month rent and started the business on $500.

“It was sort of rough State Street (in Madison) with biker bars, massage parlors, brothels, you name it,” he said. “I remember doing an interview when I first opened and saying, ‘a town like La Crosse shouldn’t have a bad neighborhood’.

“I met my wife (Michelle) down here and together we made a commitment. We bought some other buildings and either started businesses (Cheddarheads and others) or put business we liked in them.”

Peterslie plans to use the same philosophy in the former La Crosse Furniture building. “People have asked me what I plan on doing with the building, and I tell them, ‘make it better’,” he said.

Addis and his wife, Julie, operating as Main Street Renaissance, bought the Rowley building for $442,000, and removed the metal siding that was added in the late ’60s or early ’70s.

“In all honesty, we always hated that metal,” Addis told the La Crosse Tribune last year.
The bottom floor will have a restaurant or retail. The second and third floors will each have three apartments of about 2,100 square feet.

Addis expects he and Julie will spent $1.5 million on the building, in addition to the $442,000 purchase price.

Kabat said the “buzz on the street” is that Addis already has a ground level tenant lined up. He also said both renovation projects will have great impacts on one of the most prominent streets in the downtown area.

“I think it will have a major impact,” Kabat said of the renovation projects. “That’s such an important street and corner. To have that building returned to its historic look, the aesthetic impact will be immediate.”

More redevelopment could follow after this summer. The city is adding more than 300 parking spaces and a transit center. Planners also are working with Artspace Projects of Minneapolis in exploring the feasibility of moving the La Crosse Community Theater near Piggy’s and The Pump House Regional Arts Center.

“With the Pump House and La Crosse Center in the area, we could have an arts concentration there,” Kabat said.

Redevelopment could even jump the channel of the river to Barron Island, where some possible developments could be done on county-owned land.

Historic Preservation

Many of the redevelopment projects have been done with an eye on La Crosse’s history. Developers and the city have worked with Downtown Mainstreet Inc. and other historic-minded groups.

“We’re a river town,” Kabat said. “We don’t want to lose that, and I believe many of the projects have done a good job of keeping that in mind.”

Bud Miyamoto, who heads the Downtown Mainstreet group, said many people who have lived their lives in La Crosse don’t “appreciate the (historic) jewel we have here. It sometimes takes people who are here from elsewhere, or being recruited for jobs here, to point it out.”

Miyamoto cited the second bridge across the Mississippi as an example of an eye to historic appreciation. “We went back and forth for 2 ½ years with the state DOT because we wanted to keep our Big Blue bridge and build a second one next to it, rather than tear it down,” he said. “We have done that, and saved the state money in the process.”

The approach to redevelopment is paying off in many ways. Miyamoto said $204 million has been reinvested in downtown since 1992. More than 120 buildings have been restored, corporate headquarters like Logistics Health, CenturyTel and others have returned downtown and 9,000 people now work downtown.

“In 1993, we had no corporate headquarters downtown,” Miyamoto said. “The vacancy rate on some blocks was as high as 40-60%. That has changed. The state projected we might have 8,000 employees downtown by 2020. We have already surpassed that.”

There have been some glitches in the renaissance. Last year, a plan for the relocation of First Supply, a wholesale distributor of plumbing and heating supplies, in the downtown area fell through, but another deal for the possible move could still happen.

The trend, however, is undeniable. “It’s incremental,” Kabat said “It builds up after a while. We’ve worked very hard to sustain that.”

Peterslie said after he and some others made their commitments to the downtown, “the neighborhood steps up.”

“Nobody wants to be known for having the worst building in the neighborhood,” Peterslie said. “There are some very exciting things happening in downtown La Crosse.
A couple key projects happen, and it creates more interest, more enthusiasm about our downtown. I’ve seen it happen.”

Miyamoto said an intangible in the renovation has been “to see the pride on people’s faces again. Some of these people would not have thought about coming downtown in 1993. But, you can see the pride again.”