Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

What Waukesha can learn from Galena


What Waukesha can learn from Galena

Waukesha Freeman Page A6 Opinion 10/10/13

Mark Twain wrote, “There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land (and work) again after a cheerful, careless voyage.” My wife, the Lovely Doreen from Waukesha, and I sighted land again Monday after our annual peregrination to Galena, Illinois.

Galena is a quaint little city with a great history. It was a great riverboat port on the Galena River, just off the Mississippi River.

When the lead mines became economically unfeasible and the Galena River shrunk due to erosion, much of the population moved away. What was left behind was a sleepy little farming community with a lot of interesting history and historical buildings.

The city made a conscious effort to preserve its history. Today 85 percent of the structures in the city are in a historic preservation zone. Visitors can visit the home of Ulysses S. Grant or tour the historic mansions.

In addition to embracing its history, the city made an effort to attract tourism. Despite only a population of 3,429 people, the city attracts over a million visitors.

That’s pretty impressive considering the main highway is US 20, not even an interstate freeway. It cuts through the city and crosses the river. Main Street is a turnoff of US 20 and takes visitors to the downtown along the Galena River.

The Lovely Doreen and I made the mistake of visiting last year during the Country Fair. This arts and crafts fair is held annually across the river in Grant Park. A pedestrian bridge crosses the river, allowing visitors to venture downtown, shop, get something to eat, and then go back to the country fair.

Thousands of people crowd the hills of Grant Park while thousands more flood the streets of downtown. Good luck finding a table to get a bite to eat.

Imagine if Frame Park were filled to capacity with people buying art and knickknacks, and then all those people rotating in and out of a crowded downtown.

Oh, and Galena does not close the streets despite the New York City conditions on the sidewalks. They only close a couple of minor streets on the other side of the river for parking.

This last weekend was Octoberfest, which we discovered accidentally. Again the crowds were across the river having a good time, yet many of them managed to fill the shops and restaurants of the downtown. The sidewalks were again crowded while cars filled the streets. There were parking checkers but no police barricades.

It’s not just the one weekend that draws the crowds. Our first trip to Galena was an August weekend. Crowds filled the sidewalks and traffic filled the streets even though there was nothing special planned. There was no Friday Night Live, no Guitar-Town, no Art Crawl, and no Harley Fest. There wasn’t even a Farmers Market.

What does draw the crowds are the unique shops and restaurants. If they weren’t capable of drawing the crowds, the city’s visitors could easily skip the downtown after each event.

Ironically, Galena’s downtown may become less unique as stores like the Galena Canning Company and the Galena Garlic Company expand to other cities. Those stores provide a fun customer experience and great products that are difficult to find elsewhere.

Instead, there is more foot traffic on a typical Sunday walking through the stores in Galena then there is at any time in downtown Waukesha.

Can the city of Waukesha duplicate the success of Galena? Probably not.

Much of our history is gone. We didn’t even save Les Paul’s boyhood home, and our Spring City history is under a bomb shelter in Bethesda Park.

But even if we could see past the fiberglass guitars and the tacky murals promoting a guitar manufacturer with no ties to our community to find our city’s history, where would our visitors go? What unique destination stores draw anyone to our downtown other than the accidental monopoly cigar bar and a couple of restaurants?

We had a Business Improvement District that could have worked with the property owners downtown to attract new destination businesses. Unfortunately, jealous business owners and a spiteful mayor destroyed it.

We can do better. If a little town like Galena that was left for dead a century ago can find new life, so can Waukesha. We just need the will and the leadership.

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