Diane Hendricks can walk you to Beloit’s Ground Zero. The spot where she knew something had to be done because her adopted hometown was failing.
A combination hotel-condo-restaurant had opened downtown along the Rock River but the restaurant wasn’t cutting it. “The location was excellent but the service was terrible,” said Hendricks. “We bought the property and it became the nucleus for the rebirth of Beloit.”
Today downtown Beloit is thriving, and Hendricks has emerged as an important player in the travel industry – in Wisconsin and beyond. While the billionaire owner of ABC Supply Co. and conservative donor has yet to make waves in the international travel business, like Herb Kohler, her own vision is already having a positive impact in the Midwest.
It all started in Beloit. Instead of empty storefronts along Grand Avenue, downtown now has a fine arts incubator, the Beloit College bookstore, and its first sushi restaurant among a host of other new businesses within walking distance of the college. The positive additions have helped turn downtown Beloit into a destination instead of a detour.
“Refurbish and rebuild has been our mantra,” said Hendricks. “If we do this right, we can bring back both the personality and the history of the buildings which brings in tourists.”
Judged through the prism of traveler spending, business is booming in Rock County. The state says tourists spent just over $221 million dollars in 2015, up nearly 9 percent from the year before. In fact, only two of the state’s 72 counties (Columbia and Fond du Lac) had larger spending increases.
Hendricks, from western Wisconsin’s Osseo, and her late husband, Ken, from Janesville, wanted to find a place to put down roots but there was one non-negotiable requirement. “We wanted to grow the real estate business, but there had to be a college nearby,” said Hendricks. “Beloit College is why we came here.”
She has pushed hard getting the people of Beloit to work together. “Collaboration is key,” according to Hendricks. “People in Beloit don’t talk to each other enough. Our sense of community is returning, but we have to get people talking again.”
Thriving until the seventies, Beloit fell hard when successive recessions destroyed the industrial infrastructure that had defined the city for decades. At one point in 1979, Beloit made big news as the city with the nation’s highest unemployment rate.
One lynchpin to Beloit’s comeback is a point of pride for Hendricks. Once a symbol of Beloit’s stodgiest roots, Hendrick’s bought the local country club, tore down the dilapidated clubhouse and sunk nearly $15 million into a top-to- bottom improvement project.
The rebranded Beloit Club (pictured here) now has a much younger vibe than its predecessor. A more challenging golf course, a new Tudor-style clubhouse, modern music playing on the grounds, plus younger demo amenities like FootGolf that make it clear Beloit is not only open for business, but open to younger people who want to do business. That vibe helped draw the annual conference staged by local tech company Comply365, which has its offices in Beloit’s IronTek building.
“With factories like Kerry Foods, Frito-Lay, and Hormel, we need to send a very strong message that you can establish roots in Beloit,” said Hendricks.
Hendricks Commercial Properties also invested heavily in Delafield, purchasing 14 downtown buildings as well as the iconic Delafield Hotel from the Ixonia State Bank. The corporate long-term strategy is to invest in a community’s best real estate and to bring in even high-end retailers to create a top-shelf travel destination.
The Delafield project has gone well so far with an enviable 98 percent occupancy rate, and retailers like Waterford Wine soon moving into a Genesee Street storefront. The type of real estate available, the timing, and the price all fell neatly into place in Delafield and the deal was done.
Here and elsewhere, the Hendricks Commercial Properties business model has focused on industrial real estate although it is expanding, albeit somewhat modestly, into additional mixed-use projects in Marco Island and Naples, Fla. as well as Indianapolis. The Indianapolis project also includes a second Ironworks Hotel, like its sister property in downtown Beloit.
One thing Hendricks is not interested in doing however, is competing with Kohler, whose golf course building along Lake Michigan’s coast brought international travelers to the Sheboygan area and led to his purchase of the old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland.
“We do not have one aspiration of competing with Herb,” laughed Hendricks. “He’s done wonderful things in that part of the state, and we’re going to be the best in southern Wisconsin.”
–By Jerry Huffman
Huffman is an Emmy award-winning television producer and freelance publicist. He is the owner of Go2GuyCommunications.com