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A fair wind fills Port’s sails PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 16:02

Three developments that came out of the blue have the downtown poised for economic rebirth after years of struggling

    Restoring the economy of a small-town downtown sometimes resembles a sailing voyage. The vessel has to tack into strong head winds and progress is discouragingly slow. But then the wind shifts and blows fresh from astern and the vessel leaps forward toward its goal.

    Port Washington’s downtown has the wind at its back at the moment, thanks to sudden and unexpected developments concerning three landmark buildings.

    The announcement of the planned purchase and remodeling of the Lueptow building, the gift of $1 million to the Port Washington Historical Society to buy and restore the Businessmen’s Club building and the imminent opening of a Duluth Trading Co. retail store in the Smith Bros. building add up to a gale of good news.

    The buyer of the enormous Lueptow edifice, Wall Street financial executive and former Port Washington resident Daniel Ewig, has the vision and the means to bring viable retail businesses to the building’s street level and ensure the continuing downtown presence of a technology company that occupies parts of the building. Moreover, he will strike a needed blow for city aesthetics by restoring the facade to its original dignified design and razing a long-vacant house behind the building.

    The vast Duluth store, to open early autumn,  fills a vacancy that has vexed the city since the landmark Smith Bros. Fish Shanty restaurant closed several years ago and, more important, offers the prospect of a lasting retail anchor. Duluth is a successful catalog and online clothing marketer and is in for the long haul.

    The museum the Historical Society will create in the Businessmen’s Club building with the million-dollar gift from an anonymous donor will not be a commercial enterprise, of course, but it will be a spur to downtown business nonetheless. The museum will be a tourist attraction, and the purchase of the decaying structure from the owner of the adjacent, connected M&I Bank building gives him more flexibility to redevelop that property.

    There’s a big serendipity factor in these developments—they sort of came out of the blue—but that is not to say Port does not deserve them. On the contrary, no community has worked harder than Port Washington to bring commercial life back to a downtown that once teemed with shoppers supporting retail businesses that filled every Franklin Street storefront. It has earned a favorable wind shift.

    Starting with the Business Improvement District, formed before the turn of the (21st) century and supported by financial contributions from downtown property owners, which morphed into the Port Washington Main Street program, bolstered by Tourism Council marketing that has brought a steadily increasing flow of visitors to the city, and abetted by the Chamber of Commerce, Port Washington has fought back from a dismal time when it seemed the downtown had no commercial future.

    The battle is not close to being won, as the still too numerous vacant commercial spaces attest. But the signs, even beyond the big three mentioned above, are hopeful, none more so than the spirit shown by the volunteers recruited by Main Street to organize downtown events. Thanks to them, the Community Street Festival, Ladies Night Out, the Maritime Heritage Festival and other events not only give residents and visitors a good time, but showcase the downtown as the delightful place it is, worth repeated visits.

    A few grizzled veterans of the downtown wars wistfully recall a time when there were so many shoppers in town on Friday nights that a police officer had to direct traffic at Franklin and Main.

    That’s warm and fuzzy history that isn’t likely to be repeated—those were pre-mall, pre-freeway days when Port Washington was a comprehensive commercial center serving a large trade area. Now the downtown is on the cusp of making new history—with a renaissance as a city center enlivened by an eclectic  assortment of shops and restaurants, radiating small-town friendliness, historical character and maritime ambience.

    A fair wind indeed.

Grafton fire alarm PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 14:19

The times have caught up with Grafton’s long-standing all–volunteer fire department; now taxpayers have to come to its rescue

The Grafton Fire Department has been defying gravity for too long. It urgently needs to be shored up. The shoring material will have to be tax dollars.

    The GFD has been trying to carry on as an all-volunteer fire department. It’s a noble effort, but an unsustainable one.

    The department needs a paid, full-time chief with paid administrative support. And it needs the resources to pay its volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel, at least modestly, for their time spent dealing with emergencies and training for them.

    The immediate problem is finding enough volunteers. The fire department has fewer than 45 active members to handle more than 1,000 calls a year. It currently has only 15 EMTs.

    The long-term problem is that Grafton and society are changing, and neither fits very well these days with the all-volunteer fire department model.

    All-volunteer fire departments were for generations a small-town ideal. Volunteers committed vast portions of their lives to the institutions that were not only essential protectors of lives and property, but essential threads of the social fabric of their communities.

    We believe that today’s citizens are no less motivated than those volunteers of yore to give time to their communities, but in an ever more complex world, one that is full of good causes seeking volunteer help, they have less time to give. Moreover, fire department service requires a greater time commitment than in the past because of more stringent training requirements.

    It is to GFD’s credit that the all-volunteer fire department has endured as long as it has, because Grafton passed the point at which many fast-growing communities have opted for partially paid departments quite a while ago. Population has surged and property valuation—emblematic of the number of buildings that need fire protection—has soared in company with the village’s high-flying commercial development.

    Fire Chief John Place has made a persuasive case to the Village Board that changes have to be made now, or as close to now as possible. He recommended that between $410,000 and $886,000 be added to the department’s half-million-dollar budget to hire a full-time chief and provide on-call and training pay that would be a financial incentive and deserved compensation for volunteers.

    Port Washington made similar changes in its fire department several years ago, and today operates with a full-time paid chief, a part-time paid assistant and volunteers who get hourly compensation for firefighting, emergency medical calls and training, contributing to its robust recruitment.

    It is unfortunate that in Grafton’s case the Village Board and the Town of Grafton Board (village and town taxpayers support the fire department) cannot simply make the decision—the need for action is obvious. But state levy limits prohibit this sort of spending increase unless it is approved by voters in a referendum.

    A referendum question will have to be drafted by Sept. 17 so it can appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

    That should be done sooner rather than later so there is maximum opportunity to inform voters about what’s at stake, which is nothing less than the future of the Grafton Fire Department.

The signs in the sky are . . . ugly PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 18 July 2012 14:05

Port Washington’s efforts to make the new Highway 33 a welcoming city entrance are being undermined by the state’s insistence on installing overhead eyesores

    When the rebuilding of Highway 33 between Port Washington and Saukville as a four-lane highway was first proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, a number of observers, including this newspaper, expressed the fear that this road that functions as an urban street connecting two small communities would end up looking and acting like an expressway.

    Now the project is nearing completion and guess what—the DOT wants to add finishing touches that will make it look like an expressway.

    The City of Port Washington has done its best to avoid that by selecting attractive, traditionally designed street lamps to light the way into the city, opting for elaborate decorative plantings in the median and paying an outrageous amount of money to We Energies to bury power lines.

    But now comes the DOT with a plan to install large overhead signs—expressway-style signs—over the entrances to the roundabout at the intersection with Highway LL, the gateway to the city that segues in a few short blocks into the gracious, tree-lined, mostly residential Grand Avenue leading to the downtown and Lake Michigan.

    This is wrong on so many counts that it was not surprising that three aldermen have roundly criticized the DOT’s plan and are pushing for an effort to persuade the state to drop this bad idea.

    The signs, massive on their steel poles and frameworks, would be an aesthetic affront. That would be bad enough even if the signs were needed, but there is no evidence they are. Drivers have been dealing with the three roundabouts on the Port-Saukville route for weeks now without major problems and few indications of confusion.

    This in spite of the fact the roundabouts are currently marked with an array of temporary signs so ludicrously cluttered that it looks like a mad scheme intended to drive drivers nuts. Just looking at the photo of the mess in last week’s Ozaukee Press was enough to cause profound disorientation.

    Yet drivers are driving ‘round the roundabouts just fine—exactly as, ironically, the DOT said they would. The DOT has been selling roundabouts, which are proliferating in the agency’s projects all over the state, to the public as intuitive, easy to use and safe. But by insisting on overhead signs at the Port roundabout in addition to the planned ground-level directional signs, the DOT undermines its own roundabout hype.

    The DOT is right about roundabouts—they are a vast improvement over conventional interactions. But it’s wrong about the overhead signs.

    The Common Council should not accept Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven’s assessment that there is no alternative to going along with the state’s overhead-sign dictum. Rather, the aldermen should instruct him to make the case with the DOT that the signs are not just superfluous, but damaging to the character of the city’s western entrance.

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