RACINE — Travel industry expert Roger Brooks said he saw a lot of potential in Racine County, especially in Downtown Racine.
“You have nice neighborhoods, you have a downtown that feels intimate, your waterway is only a block from downtown,” said Brooks. “And that is really nice — it’s a stunning waterfront.”
But he also saw a lot of room for improvement. After spending eight days in Racine County visiting Burlington, Waterford and the City of Racine, Brooks offered 70 suggestions for improvement.
“If they implement those you will have the best Main Street in the state of Wisconsin,” said Brooks. “Hands down.”
The first challenge was finding downtown and all of Racine’s other attractions. Brooks said that driving into town from Interstate 94, he found himself surrounded by empty warehouses.
“There’s nothing that says downtown is ahead. We assumed downtown was dead,” he said. “(Tourists) don’t even make it to Downtown Racine because they give up and turn around and go to Kenosha or somewhere else.”
Brooks said the city council’s initiative to purchase wayfinding signs telling people where downtown and other attractions are was “one of the best decisions they could ever make.”
Once people arrive downtown, Brooks said the traffic needs to slow down. He recommended reducing Main Street to two lanes, one going each way, with space for a bike lane and angle-in parking. For people in a hurry, he suggested turning Wisconsin Avenue into a two-way street for those wanting to skip downtown.
“Congestion is downtown’s very best friend,” he said. “The slower people go, the more they notice, the more spending goes up.”
To keep bringing people downtown, Brooks thought Monument Square needed to have more activities year-round such as a splash pad, ice rink (which Racine implemented this past winter), exercise equipment, food trucks and street musicians.
Racine Downtown Corporation Executive Director Kelly Kruze said the organization will incorporate Brooks’ feedback going forward.
“One of the most important takeaways from the presentation was that we (the DRC) need to invest in place making; not just focusing on single events, but instead have Monument Square programmed with activities at least 250 days per year,” Kruze wrote in a statement. “If we can bring the people down, business will thrive, which means the entire community will benefit.”
The future of downtowns, according to Brooks, is being the place people want to go in the evening when they’re off work or on the weekend. One problem in downtown Racine (as well as Burlington and Waterford) is that the shops close at 5 or 6 p.m.
“Seventy percent of consumption is after 6 p.m.,” he said.
He also had some recommendations for stores that could make downtown a shopping destination, such as shoes, men’s and women’s clothing and a bookstore. With all of the area’s outdoor recreation, he thought an outdoor gear shop such as REI could do well and a marine supply store for people who use the marina. He also thought downtown could support another coffee shop and some more restaurants.
Brooks recommended taking advantage of downtown’s amenities he thinks are being underutilized. Festival Hall could have potential as a year-round market with one-third selling fresh produce, one-third selling prepared food and finally one-third of crafts and home décor.
And he believed the city is not doing enough to monetize its waterfront. One of Brooks’ frustrations was that while Burlington, Waterford and Racine all have water access points, he only found kayak, canoe or boat rentals in Waterford.
If the city implemented his suggestions, Brooks believed that within three years Racine’s downtown could be thriving, which might give the city an edge in trying to attract Foxconn workers to the community.
“For the first time in American history, quality of life is leading economic development,” said Brooks. “The goal is to become the place that people say, ‘We want to live here and work here.’ ”
The first stop on Brooks trip to Racine County was the city of Burlington, where he also saw a lot of potential, pointing out that the west end’s decompressed, country living with beautiful parks and neighborhoods could be a big draw.
However, the west end had some of the same challenges as the city of Racine: shops closing early, lack of wayfinding signs and under-utilization of bodies of water for recreation.
For Burlington, he didn’t feel the “Chocolate City” brand fit the community.
“If you want to be about chocolate it needs to be about more than one weekend a year,” he said.
Brooks recommended the city either find another brand or embrace the chocolate brand and find a way to make it year-round.
He said downtown could use a wider variety of shops and some shops could do more beautification.
“Some stores don’t do anything and you can’t tell if they’re in business or not,” he said. “Seventy percent of first time sales come from curb appeal. When we travel we choose someplace by saying, ‘This looks like a nice place to eat.’”
He thought Waterford came across as a nice community with a country feel to it.
When it comes to attracting Foxconn workers, he thought the two communities have an edge over Racine because of the high regard for their school systems.
“If I was going to raise a family somewhere, even if I was going to work in Mount Pleasant, I would take a hard look at that area because their schools were highly rated,” he said.
“For the first time in American history, quality of life is leading economic development. The goal is to become the place that people say, ‘We want to live here and work here.’ “ Roger Brooks, travel expert
MOUNT PLEASANT — Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave and Racine Mayor Cory Mason, along with other members of the transportation task force, on Thursday took what they hope is the first of many trips for Racine residents.
They waited for a bus at the Racine Transit Center on State Street, a building with decades of history regarding transit in the area, for a bus to take them to the Foxconn Technology Group development in Mount Pleasant.
The idea was simple. If the Eastern Racine County Transportation Task Force is going to be charged with solving some of the transit issues, particularly as it relates to Foxconn, they would have to take the ride themselves.
Michael Maierle, the city’s Parking and Transit Systems manager, calls the transit center the “front door to Foxconn.”
The Wisconsin Coach Line bus picked up the group just after 4 p.m. and headed out the station, first turning left on North Memorial Drive. The bus continued south on Memorial Drive, turning left onto Durand Avenue, then right on Highway 32.
From there it was pretty smooth driving down to Highway KR. And with few stoplights on KR, the drive to the Foxconn area took about 25 minutes. If two or three stops are added along the way, the commute could be closer to 30 minutes, maybe slightly more.
That 30 minute or under mark is one of the things the transportation task force is aiming for when it comes to bus routes.
The trip is one of the routes being considered to help move workers living in the City of Racine to the Foxconn site once it is up and running.
“As we work through our research, I think this is one more piece to help us start putting in solutions through the task force,” Delagrave said of the ride. “I think it gives us more of a feel of what we’re talking about because we went through the experience.”
As Foxconn becomes more of a presence in the area, Mason said the transit center is going to play a key role in connecting city residents to Foxconn.
“This site, more than anything, really does connect our past with our future,” Mason said. “Mobility is key to the success of the region.”
For the last several months, leaders and representatives of the largest municipalities east of Interstate 94 have been working to come up with solutions that would decrease the time to drive from I-94 to Downtown Racine and find efficient ways to get people to the Foxconn area.
The transportation task force held its monthly meeting on Thursday, with members of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to hear proposals for some changes that could be coming to the area.
So far, some of the recommendations from the Wisconsin DOT include modest speed limit increases on Highway K, County Highways 20, 11 and C, along with better coordination of traffic light signals on each of those roads.
Other ideas that have come up include expanding commuter rail from Kenosha to Racine and Milwaukee, an idea which has been brought up in the past.
The task force is working with the DOT to create efficient bus routes that could include “commuter bus service” with several stops and a route that goes out as far west as Burlington; a “local bus service” that would involve Regency Mall, Sturtevant and West Racine; and an “express bus service” which connects downtown Racine to Kenosha (possibly a stop at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside) and I-94.
But city officials have admitted that there have been some significant cuts to the city bus routes to save money, so difficult decisions may be coming for the task force.
“I think you have to have priorities,” Maierle said. “We don’t want (Foxconn) to be at the end of our route where it’s taking an hour to get to work. That’s not very attractive … the service has to be attractive to people.”
RACINE — Racine Unified is looking to give its culinary arts students some real-world experience with the help of a new food service management company.
The district also plans to provide more varied meal options to students and to upgrade some of its food facilities within the next few years.
During Monday’s meeting, the School Board unanimously voted to make Aramark Corporation, based in Philadelphia, the district’s food service management company for the 2018-19 school year.
The contract comes at an estimated cost of $6.6 million, but the amount the district will actually pay could be more or less than that based on the type and number of meals served through the year.
Aramark has offered to work with students in the culinary arts career pathways at Case, Horlick and Park high schools for hands-on training. In other districts it has coordinated with institutions to help students earn college credits.
“I’m very, very excited about what they bring to the table with that program,” said Cheryl Herman, Unified’s food service coordinator.
Aramark has already offered suggestions to the district for more varied breakfast offerings at the elementary level, which was an area of concern for Herman.
The current offerings are adequate but limited, she said. The district’s spring menu options for K-5 students included whole grain cereals, flavored fat-free yogurt, fruit juice, milk and cinnamon bear grahams, strawberry waffle snaps and ice cinnamon squares.
Although she said it’s unlikely that any major work will take place in the next year, Herman hopes that Aramark can help the district update some of its kitchens, cafeterias and serving areas that are in need of attention.
Aramark has experience with upgrading, remodeling and creating more efficient work spaces, she said. Herman also believes the company can help the district with cleaning and sanitizing processes.
Aramark told the district it would consider continuing to employ the 145 food service staff members who work in Unified’s kitchens and cafeterias moving forward.
Herman said she was encouraged to hear that the company was willing to bring on the existing staff.
“Many of our foodservice employees know each and every students’ name in the building,” she said.
The transition between Arbor, the district’s current food service provider, and Aramark began Wednesday and must be completed by July 1.