In the 1990s, the city block directly to the east of Racine’s Monument Square was a parking lot.
It was a parking lot because the Hotel Racine had been torn down years before. A few decades before that, people looking east from the Civil War memorial saw a bustling block which included two movie theaters, the Rialto and the Venetian.
In 2002, SC Johnson did its part to revitalize Downtown by opening the Johnson Building, which became the headquarters of Johnson Financial Group. Attendees to the St. Patrick’s Day, Fourth Fest and Holiday parades take up spots in the shadow of the building which occupies that once-deserted block across from Monument Square.
Maintaining a vibrant downtown is a cycle. What stood in a spot 20 years ago might be replaced, and in 20 years the replacement itself might be replaced.
Or, as Roger Brooks puts it: Downtowns can make a comeback, but only if they continue to change and become places where people want to spend their time.
That was the message that Brooks, a travel industry expert, shared along with tips on how to improve area downtowns during a talk at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater on Wednesday night.
At the start of the night, Dave Blank, the president and CEO of Real Racine, described how he surveyed the city and what it had to offer when he first visited for a job interview in 1997.
“That same scenario happens every day, and now with Foxconn, it’s going to happen even more often,” Blank said.
Brooks told the crowd why downtowns are making a comeback after storefronts began to empty following the invention of subdivisions in the late 1940s and the subsequent popularity of shopping centers. Now that online shopping is causing retail stores to close, it’s a chance for downtowns to flourish again.
“Change is inevitable,” Brooks said. “And what happens is, downtowns didn’t change.”
Kelly Kruse, executive director of the Downtown Racine Corp., said that it stuck with her when Brooks said tourism is the front door to a better residential economy.
“We need to get people to see Racine for the first time in a positive light,” she said.
Although Kruse believes that Downtown Racine is flourishing, she knows that it could do even better if businesses stayed open later.
Brooks informed the crowd that 70 percent of all retail spending happens after 6 p.m., a time when many Downtown Racine businesses are closed.
Seventy percent. That’s an awful lot of potential sales to be missing out on. Brooks also said that having 2-hour parking, prevalent in Downtown Racine, is not a good way to keep people there. They won’t spend as much at local stores if they’re checking their watches or if they get a ticket. It’s also important to ensure that there are public restrooms, he said.
To continue the renewal of Downtown Racine, it’s going to take outside-the-box thinking. That, by definition, would include a move away from “this is how we’ve always done it” attitudes.
That might mean following Kenosha’s example and doing away with 2-hour parking meters, or doing away with parking meters entirely. That might also mean Downtown merchants embracing the idea of being open later to attract some of that after-6 retail spending.
One thing’s for sure: Staying the same isn’t the answer. Just ask the Hotel Racine, or the Rialto or the Venetian.