Economic Development Corporation key player in revitalizing Antigo’s core
Local entrepreneurs, with help from the Langlade County Economic Development Corporation, are reimagining downtown Antigo
Over the past 11 years, the EDC has worked with city, county, state, and federal officials on a variety of programs designed to strengthen the spine of the community.
“We are seeing whole new investments in our downtown,” Angie Close, EDC executive director, said. “This is what our office is all about, protecting what we have in our community and encouraging new entrepreneurs and industries.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, those successes will be celebrated at Party on the Avenue, a mix of music and fun running from noon to 8 p.m. along Fifth Avenue. There will be a dunk tank, chalk art, bounce house, skateboard ramp, kids train and a hoop shoot, beer garden, vendors, food and pickleball. Badgerland Classic will have some vintage autos on display along with antique tractors and snowmobiles. Live music is planned throughout the day with Rocker playing from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and SLAB performing from 4 to 8 p.m. Sponsor is Wagner Oil
“We encourage everyone to come down and see all the new things and revisit some of their favorite businesses downtown,” Close said.
Downtown is only a handful of blocks long but the road to its redevelopment has stretched over a decade.
In 2011, Mayor Bill Brandt spearheaded a program to provide grants to downtown business owners to improve their facades. The dollars, which came from city funds, offered a 25 percent match, up to $3,000 for eligible programs. There was a pent-up demand. That early program funded 43 programs with $584,000 in façade investments. The city’s portion was $94,000.
“It was the start to the community understanding that we needed to invest in our downtown,” Close said. “It needed attention.”
Building on that success, in 2015 city joined with Langlade County and CoVantage Credit Union to create the Downtown Entrepreneur Grant, focused on promoting existing businesses and bringing new opportunities. The grants provided reimbursements of up to 25 percent, a maximum of $10,000, for investments downtown. Eventually that cap was raised to a $25,000.
“We were bringing buildings back to life “but there were still a lot of empty buildings, “Close said. “Our number one goal was to get these buildings that were vacant rehabbed and reloved.”
The numbers were again impressive, with 21 businesses participating. Reimbursements totaled $210,000 with close to $1 million of total investments.
“Those grants really started our success of bringing businesses downtown,” Close said. “That really started everything.”
Starting with Bremax Insurance and Investments, the list grew to include downtown mainstays including Harper’s Mercantile, Thrivent Financial, Farmers Insurance, Inspiring Images, Flowers from the Heart on Fifth and Wild Epitome.
“We had some of these businesses come to us asking about opportunities and we’d say, ‘let’s go look at some buildings and see what we’ve got available,” Close said. “Those businesses are some great rehabs.”
“When we came here, EDC really helped us out,” Josh Jamison of Flowers from the Heart, said. “An economic development agency is a must in any community. Use those resources. They help no matter where your business is, whether the business is in the city or a farming operation out in the county.”
Hiccups became opportunities. The Fifth Avenue reconstruction project disrupted traffic, but officials worked closely with the businesses to ensure they could remain open as the street was carved open and rebuilt. EDC administered the Community Development Block Grant, totaling over $4.5 million, for that massive project.
“Our first goal was preserving the investment by the businesses that were already downtown,” City Administrator Mark Desotell said, “and then to make it attractive for those who were interested in coming…It’s been a catalyst. The tone is set for us to perhaps succeed for the next 50 years.”
Rick Montgomery, owner of Harper’s Mercantile, was among those who took a chance on the downtown after learning that the city was planning to reconstruct Fifth Avenue.
“The new street was coming in and I was thinking it might be a chance to purchase a building inexpensively,” Montgomery said, “I looked on it as a business opportunity.”
“Rick recognized the potential down there,” Desotell said. “He understood what the investment in infrastructure had the potential to do.”
Then came the COVID pandemic, which shuttered nonessential businesses for months.
“Many businesses utilized our office to gain access to all the COVID-related funding that became available,” Close said. “We would sit down with them and go over options one on one.”
Now, it’s the Main Street Bounceback program, a state Department of Revenue initiative that is offering up to $10,000 grants for businesses to locate in vacant buildings. To date, 19 businesses in our City’s downtown corridor, total of 35 granted throughout the County, have utilized those dollars, including Urban Pearl boutique, which opened in the former Benishek’s barber shop in late May. Owner Laura Suhr purchased the building and completed EDC’s entrepreneurship training program.
“I learned a lot about starting a business that I didn’t know,” Suhr said. “It was very informative.”
The entrepreneurship training was also where she learned about the grant program, with simple paperwork and assistance from EDC.
“It was a fairly easy process considering I had never done anything like that,” Suhr said. “EDC was a good resource. They know the places to go to get the things you need.”
Retail businesses aren’t the only ones benefitting from the revitalization push. About $5,000 in funds remaining from the now-concluded façade and entrepreneur grant programs have been reallocated to the downtown mural program.
“That’s another beautification and cultural program for the downtown,” Close said. “It’s very popular. People are liking what they are seeing.”
Community revitalization is a never-ending project, constantly evolving with new challenges and opportunities. As the calendar turns to a new decade of progress—and some admitted setbacks—Close said the Economic Development Corporation will continue to be a key player.
“We encourage businesses to connect with our resources. That is exactly what we are here for,” Close said. “Come see us and let us hear your story.”