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Attitude Adjustment May Help Port's Downtown Thrive

Patch Columnist wonders what is needed to aid in leading this community out of its economic tar pit.

I had a wonderful friend, maybe the greatest ever.

Sloan died suddenly when he was forty years old. Boom! Gone. Bad genes. 

Sloan had many fine qualities, but two were especially remarkable. He was loyal to his friends, and he was a great leader.  Professionally, he led a team of hardware and software engineers charged with solving complex problems plaguing computer systems in the Pentagon, White House and other enterprises in the mid-Atlantic area. Privately, he threw outstanding parties of all sorts.

Loyalty and leadership combined to allow him to marshal his troops and get them all pulling in the same direction.  It was a thing of beauty to behold.  One thing he did was to make sure everyone understood that the stakes were very high. 

"The president needs to know what’s going on," Sloan might say.  "It's up to us to fix this by morning."

Of course, his team felt motivated — especially when he added, "After, we can all go for a dip in the quarry."

"I’ll bring the canoes," someone would chime in.

"I’ll bring the catapult," another would add. "We’ll launch a few watermelons."

Sloan was a work-hard, play-hard kind of guy, and it was contagious.

Here in Port Washington, we are faced with our own set of issues.  While our city is loaded with charm, our downtown is not loaded with shoppers. 

We have "events" such as this weekend's Pirate Fest and Fish Day that draw nice crowds for a day or two, but there isn’t a steady influx of visitors who think of Port Washington as a commercial destination. 

Without a critical mass of shopper "traffic," everyone suffers — including restaurants, gas stations, hotels, shops, service businesses of all types and more.

As every savvy mall manager knows, a mall filled with the right mix of stores will also be filled with hoards of customers. A mall with vacant spaces is toast. I was a contributing editor to Retail Store Image Magazine for six years.  I know the turf.

How do we get our downtown humming on a daily basis?  How do we jumpstart our local economy?  How do we revitalize Port Washington?

We pool our ideas. There are lots of smart people in Port Washington. Many are smart enough to know that in retail the success of one doesn’t detract from the success of the other — quite the contrary. If my business is growing, yours will come along for the ride. The battle cry should be  "All for one and one for all."

Here’s another axiom, "If it isn’t working, try something else."

I’ll go out on a limb here and question a sacred cow. 

When I attend Fish Day, for example, I see thousands of people eating fried food, swilling beer, listening to mostly mediocre music — and I don’t see them again until Fish Day next year.  They could do these things almost anywhere in Wisconsin on a summer day. 

It seems like a huge effort with marginal return on investment, plus it targets the wrong demographic.  When I was in high school, Fish Day was the place to get hammered.  From the look of things, it still is.  If you shy away from brutal honesty, you have already read too far.

However, my point is, if we want to change our community, we will have to change ourselves, our thinking, or both.  It’s time for some self-examination.

I ran the Cedarburg Chamber of Commerce for a while as Interim Executive Director.  They had a crisis and asked me to do it.  I treated it as a consulting gig, vowing to step aside when they found the right person.  I knew going in that I could address the structural issues, but I am not an event planner, a major function of the job long-term.  Six months was about all I was prepared for and, in truth, capable of.

Happily, Port Washington has a new chamber of commerce director who has the key skills for the job.  For one thing, Dooley Vogel understands without reservation that success is a team effort.  She can’t fix the Port Washington economy, but she can help orchestrate a collaborative effort that will get the job done if we all pitch in. It is a large challenge requiring the good will and hard work of the entire community.

After we all get the ball rolling, I suggest we have a world-class party.   

Aunt Waffle June 04, 2011 at 01:10 PM
Well, I am very glad you asked. Port Washington has, to my mind, a similar challenge to its sister city...Milwaukee. Its called second city-itis. Milwaukee has toddled along holding the skirts of its big sister Chicago for a hundred years. Milwaukeeants believe that, if they want real culture, they must go to Chicago to find it. They will attend their own festivals...but, for a real time...they must head south for Chic. Likewise, I fear, people in and about Port dont really fully BELIEVE in Port. So they head to Milwaukee instead to shop, to eat, to see a play, to drink their coffee. And if they only make it to Cedarburg or Mequon....well...that will do.... To get Port to sizzle, short of spreading rumors about the submarine sightings off the breakwater, short of mentioning that Abraham Lincoln actually had a mistress named Mittzy in Port whom he would visit on occaision, short of mentioning that in one decade, Port will become the alternate energy capitol of north eastern Ozaukee County and will be unsurpassed in aquaponic pineapple production, I suggest that we install a Czar of the Big Picture....who would do nothing else than cogitate on this problem twenty four seven. This would have to be a very Special Person, with fine tuned intuition, exceptional interpersonal skills and above all, a creative genius who knows that the fact that its has already been tried...doesnt mean diddly do. Fortunately, I AM AVAILAVLE!!!!
Mary Boyle June 06, 2011 at 04:46 AM
I would like to know who Aunt Waffle really is and have some coffee with her - or him - please. Excellent article, Howard, with excellent points. What would make Port sizzle? I hope that, in 10 years, the Sustainability Fair has taken it's place as the number one festival and Fish Day is more about bringing awareness of how we can keep a healthy fish population in Lake Michigan. You are right, though; Port Washington will only succeed when its own residents come together and support it. In fact, Main St., the Chamber, Tourism, the city government, the businesses and the people who are lucky enough to call Port their home will all need to unite in a common vision in order to breathe some life back into our struggling downtown. The question is: who will lead us? What will be the catalyst? I am so glad that Dooley Vogel is on board at the Chamber - we're going to need her energy, and the energy of many others, to repair our ship. I have complete faith, though, that the winds of change are here and beginning to blow in our favor.
Howard Hinterthuer June 06, 2011 at 12:51 PM
Aunt Waffle writes an advice column on Facebook. She is the common law wife of Blues Legend Mo Waffle, although Mo consistently denies a relationship of any sort. None-the-les Aunt Waffle is a woman of substance who, like Betsy from Pike, stands on her own two feet and is "not to be messed with," according to Mo. My understanding is that Aunt Waffle has a Masters in Counseling from North Dakota State University and make a world-class German Pancake. "The key is a cast iron skillet," she says. "Between omlettes, it is useful for threatening Mo," she adds. Like most of us, Aunt Waffle gives sound suggestions to her readers, although she doesn't always heed her own advice. I check in with Aunt Waffle periodically, especially when I need a unique perspective on a pressing issue. No doubt she would be thrilled to hear from you as well.
Pat Morrissey June 06, 2011 at 02:52 PM
Outstanding article, Howard! My husband and I moved from Milwaukee to Port in March, 2011. We are thrilled to be living here for many reasons. Beautiful Lake Michigan and its Port area top our list of "Aren't we blessed to be living in Port!" However, it is amazing that this city is not more vibrant with "one of a kind stores," especially in the area of the arts. As I walk through downtown, I wonder and am confused as to why so many buildings are for sale or unoccupied. Because of our beautiful location, Port Washington could easily "trump" Cedarburg as a destination spot throughout the year. But, in my living here for just a few short months, it seems that the politics of the city are to blame. Why wouldn't the Chamber, Main Street, and the Department of Tourism all be working TOGETHER to expand the horizons of Port Washington in a team like fashion? True leaders enjoy the trust of others, which is very different from enjoying the perks and flattery and power that ego insists are the signs of being a leader. Dooley Vogel definitely fits this description, especially with her strong sense of team. Hopefully all barriers will be removed in order for Dooley, and her many creative ideas, to move forward in helping to make Port Washington the city in Wisconsin that everyone wants to visit throughout the year. Thank you, Howard, for bringing this issue to everyone's attention! I hope people are reading, pondering, and will help support the future growth of Port Washington!
Jen June 06, 2011 at 08:02 PM
I believe the addition of Pear & Simple was the tipping point Port's downtown business district needed. A survey of the greater PW community conducted years ago indicated that higher-end, classy, niche shops were in demand, but no one believed it at the time. Meanwhile, horrible little resale and designer knock-off shops littered the street between the empty buildings, and the martini bar closed - not because it was too expensive, but because the owner insisted on amplified lounge music in that tiny space. What in the world was he thinking?! Anyway, back to Pear & Simple. What a lovely little shop! And, so beautiful from the street as well as inside. Next we have a tea shop, and now ZuZu Pedals, to add to our winery, African, Italian, and European restaurants, etc. Goodbye, horrible little knock-off and resale stores. Pirate Fest? Fish Day? They are what they are - a few days of traffic a year. They aren't hurting anything, but you can't give them too much credit, either. You want more of what's been popping up in downtown lately? Talk about the new businesses with your rich friends, the investor types. Tell them about this big, beautiful, empty space (Smith Bros) in the middle of all these wonderful new bright and modern shops. Stop comparing PW to Cedarburg. PW is the next big deal and Cedarburg is going to wish it were us, but it will never be. PW is THE lakefront community of Oz. It just gets better from here.
Aunt Waffle June 07, 2011 at 12:28 PM
I am going to go out on a virtual limb here.... I think we should skip the nautical stuff too... as we project a viable town. Not that we fill in the marina and prohibit Pirate Fest. God forbid that we ask all the boomer watercolorists to stop painting pictures of ruddy little light houses projecting their verticality into the grey skies. And anyone who wants to carve another seagull should be given ample space and a table. But we dont need more rope and pier decor....salty souvenirs and weekend sea legging workshops! There are enough and everyone gets the point...they can see the LAKE.
Dave June 07, 2011 at 05:17 PM
Here is an idea stop tearing up the roads leading to downtown every year for the past three years
Brian Carlson June 16, 2011 at 01:28 AM
I have a few ideas on this topic. No doubt some long range thinking is vital, careful plans, research, committees, liasons between these folks, the downtown business owners, the Chamber , the Main Street folks and the City itself. That is a slow motion but is vital. People need to envision what they want Port to be five years from now...ten years..etc. and begin to set in motion the process and structures to take us there. But there is another vital side to this that must operate simultaneously and with much more spontaneity. Business owners must understand and adopt the paradigm that the success of all is dependent upon the success of each of these small businesses mentioned...and we must take many small, relatively inexpensive, but practical steps right now...to get through this summer...to ensure we survive the winter slow down, so that we will be here next spring. As the new owner of the Java Dock, I certainly open my doors to any business owners who want to meet with me and others... and discuss simple effective and immediate steps we can take to bring people into the downtown and then to shuttle them about to all these vital, exciting shops, cafes, and businesses. We can call it supPort .... not a bad tag...and just get going on it tomorrow!!!!
Brian Carlson June 16, 2011 at 01:31 AM
Another brief point. The people of Port Washington should become aware that their quality of life depends on the success of the downtown. Property values...the attractiveness of our city to people looking to relocate, the tax base, and the lives our children lead are all effected by how business rises or falls downtown. I strongly encourage you to revisit downtown...if you haven't recently...and believe you will be pleasantly surprised with the range of offerings you can find there... the energy that is arising... etc. Port is starting to become a pretty cool place!!!!

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