Our TownPosted by admin on 3/22/11 • Categorized as Spring 2011
Life at the Center
In the 20th century, most cities worked to lure manufacturing giants into their city limits. Now, in order to survive, they need to attract brain power. A summer 2010 report titled “Life at the Center” (created for Beloit 2020 by Schreiber Anderson Associates, a landscape architecture and urban design firm) supports this idea, citing the work of John Eger, director of the California Institute for Smart Communities at San Diego State University. Eger identified a vibrant city center as key to attracting and keeping “bright and creative people” in a community. “In general, strong growth … has been characteristic of cities that embrace and promote all manner of artistic expression and cultural diversity,” Eger writes.
The “Life at the Center” report suggests Eger is on to something: promoting a great quality of life at the city’s center and attracting and keeping a “creative class” is, it reports, “a necessity for Beloit’s future.”
Braatz sees examples of this vitality in two new downtown businesses, both frequented by the college crowd. “I think that some really great examples, in that spirit, are what’s happened at our coffeehouse, Nikki’s, and Bushel & Peck’s,” she says. Beyond food and drinks, both offer programming like movie screenings, live music, and trivia nights.
Nikki’s Café (originally called Pleasant Street Café, under former ownership) opened in 2006, in the lower level of the Heritage View luxury condos next door to the Beloit Inn. The summer months find customers sipping lattes and glasses of wine on a brick patio with a view of the river and the murals on the Beloit Ironworks building, which sits on the opposite bank.
Bushel & Peck’s Local Market occupies the former Woolworth’s building at the southwest corner of State Street and Grand Avenue. In 2004, the building was slated to be razed, the space intended for a parking lot. Anchoring the intersection of the downtown’s main arteries, the establishment is now a hybrid of restaurant, grocery store, and community center. All of it is steeped in the idea that local is better.
To many, Bushel & Peck’s has become a sociological “third place,” Braatz says—neither home nor work, but a gathering place where living is done and bonds are formed. But even Bushel & Peck’s owners, Jackie Gennett and Rich Horbaczewski, were originally uncertain of their prospects for success in downtown Beloit. They first encountered the city in 2005 as vendors in Beloit’s farmers market.
“Realistically, when we opened, I thought there was a fifty-fifty shot,” says Gennett. Still, there were things that gave her hope. “If you looked around, even in a quiet downtown, you could see things like planter boxes, plants, art, installation of signs, and driving along the riverfront, you ask yourself: Why is this here? Why is this beautiful riverfront in Beloit? You could see investment in the community, both in funds and time.”
Bushel & Peck’s quickly became popular. “When we first opened, students and faculty and people from the city of Beloit would come and thank us repeatedly for being here,” Gennett says.
The store is just one in a slew of new and revamped small retailers and dining establishments in Beloit’s downtown. Gennett recalls a recent conversation with customers from Janesville, who told her how they had spent the entire day shopping, eating, and hanging out in downtown Beloit, hopping from Pizzazz, a boutique on State Street, to lunch at Bagels & More restaurant, to more shopping at Annabelle’s gift boutique, to buying groceries at Bushel & Peck’s, to digging through racks of vintage clothing at the Little Green Dress on Grand Avenue. “Visitors are doing that now. They weren’t doing that before,” she says.
Less than two years after opening her first business in downtown Beloit, Gennett opened Little Green Dress, about a block away. The store sells vintage and used clothing and jewelry, and Gennett was quick to recognize the college community as core to her market demographic. That core also supplies her staff—she estimates that about 75 percent of her employees are Beloit College students.
Though new businesses are important to the rebirth of downtown Beloit, Braatz maintains that smaller, more subtle changes have also made a big difference. Facades of existing businesses have been cleaned and repainted recently; concrete planters that sat behind businesses accumulating cigarette butts were moved to the front sidewalks and planted with flowers. “It isn’t always about the one big thing,” Braatz says. “It’s about every little thing that inches toward a better place.”
Arft says that while infrastructure changes have been vitally important, those changes don’t mean much if the downtown is devoid of life. “We’ve also attempted to not just do physical improvements, but also to animate the city center. There’s always something neat happening,” he says.
A concerted effort is being made to keep the downtown district populated after hours, too. Downtown Beloit now boasts live music five nights a week, every week, something that was almost unimaginable just a few years ago.
Besides new businesses and entertainment options, a longtime favorite, the Downtown Beloit Farmers Market, has greatly expanded. In an informal social media poll conducted by Beloit College Magazine this winter, many mentioned the seasonal Saturday morning market as a local highlight.