RACINE — In urban design, rows of buildings in a business district have been compared to rows of teeth, with every vacant spot being like a tooth missing from a smile.
To borrow that comparison, West Racine’s main business district needs a lot of dental work.
When the iconic Nelson’s Variety Store closes on Saturday, that will add to an increasingly gapped three-block business district along Washington Avenue in West Racine, as some established business people there agree.
“There’s more empty stores than ever,” Bob Barina, owner of Bob’s on Washington, said bluntly. And he should know: Barina has had his shop at 3213 Washington Ave. for 53 years.
When Nelson’s closes, that block alone will be five vacant storefronts there — six if one includes the former Piggly Wiggly which has a Grove Avenue address but faces Washington Avenue.
The next block west, the 3300 block, has about 3½ vacant storefronts but also three churches, which are only used for a few hours a week. And on the northwest corner of that block sits a USA Payday Loan shop.
Barina, the long-time barber, identified competition from big-box stores as having drained much of West Racine’s former vitality.
That stretch once had both a men’s clothing and women’s apparel shop, he said, and remarked, “Kohl’s has a sale every 30 seconds whether they need to or not.”
“It’s hard to think of a business that could rent one of these stores and compete,” Barina commented.
“It’s a sad situation with all the empty storefronts,” said Rhonda Masilian, owner of Molbeck’s Health & Spice Shop, 3212 Washington Ave. “It worries me.
“I don’t know if the rents are too high,” Masilian added. “I’m not quite sure what the problem is.”
Part of what the district is experiencing is a transition, according to Josh Sopczak, a West Racine resident, West Racine Business Association member and commercial banker at Tri City National Bank. He pointed out that David and Linda Rosenthal retired and closed Red Bell, 3201 Washington Ave., last year. And Nelson’s Variety, 3223 Washington Ave., is closing so owner Jeff Nelson can retire.
Another big problem, Sopczak said, goes back to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store closing many years ago.
“We’ve all seen the eyesore that’s been in place since the Pig moved out,” he said. And the building’s out-of-state owner has shown no particular urgency about filling it, Sopczak observed.
That means West Racine lacks a large destination business to help support smaller ones, he said. “There’s no dominant business to drive people in on a daily basis.”
Jim Spangenberg, co-owner of Johnson’s Home Furnishings, 3219 Washington Ave., sounded less concerned than other West Racine merchants about the storefront vacancies. But he agreed with Sopczak about the area needing businesses to pull people in.
Spangenberg said his wife, Beth, believes that West Racine needs “something that will draw ladies in — along with a really good restaurant.”
Needed: Evening activity
Sopczak said one thing West Racine could do to help itself is remove the last of the parking meters in the lots just behind both the north and south sides of Washington Avenue.
They bring in but a pittance in cash, he said and commented, “We’re a city that penalizes you for shopping local.”
Kevin Flynn, co-owner of the Minuteman Press franchise store at 910 West Blvd., voiced similar thoughts. Most businesses close at 5 or 6 p.m. and West Racine needs “a little more nightlife,” he said. “Something to draw people in the early evening. … It needs to draw people in whether it be a lunch crowd or dinner crowd. (Another) restaurant would be great.”
Chris Chvilicek of Wilson’s Funeral Home and WRBA president, said the planning process for the entirety of West Racine, which began in January, has identified desirable additions to the business district including a grocery store or indoor farmers market, ice cream shop/soda fountain and family restaurant.
The question, of course, is: How?
Masilian of Molbeck’s voiced a thought that many others have mentioned: West Racine’s “walkability” has suffered over time, being bisected by busy state Highway 20. That contributes to the storefront vacancies, she believes.
“Till we get businesses in that will attract that walking (visitor),” Masilian said, “I don’t see it changing.”