SUPERIOR — As work continues behind the scenes on plans to redevelop the historic Princess Theater, Mayor Jim Paine says the city’s downtown district is largely functioning again, and he would like to give neighborhood business districts the same opportunity to thrive: East End, Billings Park, North End, South End, Itasca and Allouez.
That’s the way Superior was designed, and that’s the way it worked best, the mayor said.
The Telegram sat down with Paine for a question-and-answer session Jan. 18 to explore his vision for those once-thriving neighborhood business districts. Responses have been edited for style, grammar and space constraints.
Q: What worked to make downtown a thriving business community again?
A: It starts with infrastructure, the physical place.
The first meaningful experience I had with local government was working on the Metropolitan Interstate Council through the county board. A lot of the planners there would talk about placemaking and the way transportation, movement and built infrastructure affects the surrounding land use … Changing the way the physical space was built — favoring pedestrians, even creating space for bicyclists, limiting the access to cars and parking — improved the physical space.
It made it a better place to be, and if it’s a better place to be, it’s a better place to shop. It’s a better place to do business. It’s a better community space and that makes commerce thrive.
Q: What steps can the city take to help bring that vitality back to neighborhood business districts?
A: I think it starts the same way. The involvement of the municipality should start by being total and get progressively smaller as you take more steps.
The city should really redesign the space and focus on community-centered, walkable, fun, pleasing environments in each of those spaces.
In a neighborhood business district, I would do the exact same thing as downtown Tower and narrow both the actual driving space, expand the walking space and then do aesthetic improvements, especially related to nature. Add trees. Add plantings and park space …
That’s what a lot of great small cities do. Once it’s a better space, you’re going to see retail improve because they’ve already been dying in ineffective places for business, which means the real estate value is fairly low and it means that small businesses, entrepreneurs, have much lower barriers to entry …
We saw that happen right away with Tower. Tower had been an ineffective space for decades. It had been dying ever since the creation of the mall and the Blatnik Bridge … After they made it nice and the real estate was still low, business started to boom.
The next steps facilitate businesses doing that. Cost of space is really only one barrier. You have to do build-outs. You need professional education on managing a business. The city is great at doing that. We created the small business grant program. The economic development team has direct business coaches that can help people succeed. So, we help folks get their start.
Then more or less facilitate what is called the penultimate plan, which is facilitate new construction. The city’s also fairly good at that. The city was good at that even before I was the mayor. Facilitate that in downtown spaces. That’s what we did with projects like Cobblestone and the Empire Block — give major incentive money to folks who will do the big, grand project that will bring people to the space, either through residential or hotels; bring new people there and fill in empty spaces.
The very final part of the plan is to do nonbusiness things: art and culture. The Princess is kind of the cherry on top of Tower Avenue …
Q: Are there specific neighborhoods where you would like to focus efforts, or would you like to see that develop organically?
A: It is best to let the market show you where it wants to grow. You can only move the market so much … But I think the city can also take a large leadership role by trying to anticipate that.
Obviously, if we’re trying to promote walkability and we know that makes a business district successful, then it makes sense to look at where there are people that can walk to the district. So when I look at East Fifth Street, I see a thriving neighborhood around it. That’s why it was a business district in the first place. That’s true of Iowa Avenue in Billings Park and South Tower …
So those three neighborhoods are ripe for revitalization. After that, I would look to history or where opportunity exists.
I think the North End has to be looked at very closely as we consider the Blatnik Bridge project and where that’s going to land. That’s going to change the shape of that neighborhood. It’s not a very walkable neighborhood right now … But there’s a lot of people that live there … so we would be doing a service to it by making it a walkable neighborhood. There’s a former business district there on North Fifth that still has some thriving businesses. If you can create some connectivity from the east side to the west side … I think you can have a really thriving district that can benefit that neighborhood …
I think we can look at the further reaches of the city, Allouez and Itasca, which really can’t walk anywhere but they have the most diverse populations of the city and some of the lowest incomes. It has the greatest need for walkable neighborhoods. They’ve also had some historic business districts torn apart by the highway. So, we have to look at how we fix that and bring that back if we can’t redesign the highway for a decade or two.
Some of these places — Allouez is every bit as much of an island as it was 100 years ago. For the folks that live there, what’s that daily experience? Are they that tied to a vehicle? To say nothing of a bridge. In my time as mayor, Allouez has been cut off by a flood. So what are we doing for folks so they don’t have to leave their neighborhood? That’s the best way to design a city. Make it so where you live is where you live your whole life and leaving your neighborhood is a positive experience, not a mandatory one.
Q: Are there specific businesses that you think neighborhoods need to thrive?
A: Yes, food. By far food is the first and most important thing, whether that’s a coffee shop, a cafe, a restaurant, to a certain extent a tavern. A lot of taverns serve food. Most important is retail food, the ability to go to a corner grocery store.
When I took office, there was a lot of criticism of the number of Kwik Trips that were coming to town, but Kwik Trips sell groceries …
The neighborhood of Allouez that I just mentioned is like the Krist and the Korner Store, the former President’s, are lifelines to those people. If you wake up on Sunday morning and you don’t have milk, you don’t have eggs, you don’t always want to go to the grocery store on the other side of town … It’s nice to be able to walk there.
… After that, there are things that are not businesses — churches, schools and parks. After that, places to work. Whatever the businesses are, most of the time we think of them as retail, but retail should only make up about 20% of a business district. Beyond that, it’s professions, realtors and attorneys and accountants and banks. After that, potentially even light manufacturing. Most neighborhoods had some form of light manufacturing … small shops where people make things — cabinet stores — any kind of light manufacturing, it’s places where people can work.
If all of those elements existed in neighborhoods and you worked at one of those businesses, you don’t even need to own a car. I think most people still would, but if you don’t need to, your personal economy is better and your neighborhood is better.
Q: While there are still several businesses on North Fifth Street that are doing very well, a lot of that area has become very industrialized. How do you integrate small business back into that environment?
A: The way the city has built its zoning code — industry in one place, housing in another, commerce in a third — has segregated the whole city. It means you can’t live in your own neighborhood because life is about more than where you sleep, so we created industry districts that were not necessary to where they live. Obviously, shipping must be on the water. Beyond that, there is always going to be some heavy industry, but putting it all in one place starts to hurt those neighborhoods.
How do we shift away from that? I think you have to recognize first what makes businesses succeed. It’s nothing that government can do. Only people make businesses succeed … The reason there are still thriving businesses in the North End, despite everything the city’s code and history has done to that part of town, is because of the people of the North End. They patronize those businesses. Some others do too, but if you walk into the Kitchen, it’s largely North Enders there. If you walk into the taverns in that area, it’s largely neighborhood residents. The elements for success are already built into it. You just need to make it easier for the neighbors to access more businesses …
Again, look at Tower Avenue. Fifty years, at least, of decline, of businesses leaving, and even when real estate prices and rent prices were at their very lowest, businesses still weren’t coming back. Make it a nice place and they come back. If we make it a nice place for North Enders, businesses will likely come back. We’ve seen it everywhere else it’s been tried …
Q: You have mentioned plans to narrow Tower Avenue south of Belknap to 28th Street. How is that going to improve the neighborhood and businesses there?
A: The exact same way it did on North Tower. It will, for one, make it safer … By far, the biggest traffic complaint I ever receive in the city of Superior is from residents that don’t like people speeding through their neighborhoods …
The benefit, of course, is that there is now room for people … So, the people that live on that street, with their front doors facing that street, they get more property back. They get a neighborhood where they can actually walk onto it rather than have to use their back doors for everything …
My grandmother was in her 80s when she still lived on Banks and 17th, and her corner grocery store was on 17thStreet at a gas station across Tower. There is no world where my grandmother would safely cross Tower Avenue even back then, so she didn’t. She couldn’t go to Louis’ Cafe anymore. She couldn’t patronize any of the businesses in the Nottingham complex.
When you make it easier and safer to cross, all the businesses on the east side get access to all of the residents on the west side, and vice versa …
Q: Is there any future possibility that the trend to narrow lanes will eventually extend to the other end of Tower Avenue?
A: … Anyone who thinks it will be a nightmare is just wrong. I won’t say it won’t be stressful at times, in the mornings as folks drop kids off at school, the commute to work. That will get a bit more difficult. Folks will have to plan for that. But we put the neighborhood first. Make it safer. Make it a more pleasant place to live and visit.
I would point out, look at what we did on North Tower; it looked exactly the same. And now, you don’t even have to go to the corner to cross the street on North Tower. When I go to 7 West, I’m usually parking on the east side of the street and there’s gaps in that median. I can just walk cross the open street anywhere I want. You’d better believe that’s good for 7 West, because if I had to walk all the way to one end and all the way back, maybe I’ve decided on a different restaurant along the way.
That too is good for neighborhoods, to go past a lot of businesses and see them. There’s just so many elements beyond business in a neighborhood like South End that I’m interested in …