Despite loss of funds, DRI to carry on
From Northwoods Commerce magazine
By Timi Eckes
When Rhinelander’s business improvement district was dissolved by petition last spring, the leaders of Downtown Rhinelander Inc. (DRI) knew that without the funds levied from businesses within the district, they would have to make significant adjustments.
The choices would be tough. Since DRI was incorporated, the downtown area has seen the advent of popular projects like Hodags on Parade and events such as Taste of Chocolate and PotatoFest. A number of new businesses have also opened in downtown Rhinelander over the last several years, and many of them worked directly with DRI.
But a substantial portion of DRI’s funding – about half of it – was lost when the business improvement district was dissolved. That loss has resulted in a shift in DRI’s priorities. It has also resulted in the loss of paid staff positions. DRI will operate without an executive director beginning in 2016 and it will no longer keep regular office hours.
It’s a dismal development for any organization, but DRI President Dan Kuzlik quickly makes it clear that DRI doesn’t intend to go away. Instead, the group will modify its role in the community. “The focus of DRI now will be less event-driven and more economic development-driven,” he says.
The organizing and operation of events such as Redikulus Dae, PotatoFest, Taste of Chocolate and others will be left to local businesses and organizations, some of which are already stepping up to the job.
DRI will shift to a more behind-the-scenes role. For example, the group will continue with Downtown Works. When downtown business owners need help financing improvements to their businesses or properties, they can turn to this program that offers direct low-interest loans.
The organization will also continue to work with the city on various projects, among them the parking utility. “We want to keep that going,” Kuzlik says, noting that parking was the issue that led to DRI’s formation a decade ago in the first place. Over the last several years, he explains, DRI, the Cleary Foundation and the city have each put $15,000 into a fund annually to help pay for plowing Rhinelander’s streets, maintaining parking lots and other related expenses formerly funded by revenue from parking meters.
In addition, DRI will be working with Forward Rhinelander, an organization formed recently. “Various groups got together – the chamber, Downtown Rhinelander, people from the city,” Kuzlik explains. “That group has been meeting on a regular basis.” Forward Rhinelander focuses on projects that involve infrastructure and aesthetics, and the group is investigating the possibility of creating a community investment program that would improve blighted buildings in the downtown area. Kuzlik, Ken Juon, who is DRI’s secretary, and executive director Maggie Steffen have been attending the Forward Rhinelander meetings.
DRI will also continue to operate Rhinelander’s first business incubator, which the group created, and which is located in the organization’s building at 30 West Davenport Street. DRI owns the building and currently collects fees from a tenant who rents two of the incubator’s four offices. In the back of the building is a large space that could potentially be used by a business that does light manufacturing. In the front is a large space suitable for a retail business. There’s also an office available for temporary use – a boon to entrepreneurs vacationing here who need to take care of some business back home. Although the building is currently for sale, DRI leaders would like to continue operating out of it even after it’s purchased. And, Kuzlik adds, there will be more space available for prospective incubator tenants due to the staff cuts.
“The whole idea of an incubator is not to compete with other businesses downtown,” he says. Instead, business incubators are designed to help fledgling enterprises get a start, and then leave the nest, so to speak. “We will lease maybe up to two years and then we want them to move on.” The organization will refer businesses that have gotten their start at the incubator to other downtown building owners.
DRI is coping with trying times, but the organization is gearing up to help downtown businesses navigate through their own challenges when Rhinelander’s Streetscape project gets underway. The organization will work with the city to keep communication open with downtown businesses as the project progresses. “Our role will be to have regular meetings with downtown people,” Kuzlik says.
The Streetscape project encompasses much more than sprucing up the downtown area’s aesthetics. Work on underground utility lines is expected to begin downtown in 2016. According to rhinelanderstreetscape.com, the area from Davenport Street to Brown Street will probably be the first to be dug up so that old utility lines can be replaced. Following that will be utility work on Brown Street and Stevens Street.
“I don’t think some current businesses realize the disruption that’s going to cause,” Kuzlik says. Even with the utility work being done a section at a time, business owners in the downtown area will still face several challenges, among them connection with the new utility lines, customer parking, alternative entrances to their buildings while streets are closed due to construction and in some cases, possible temporary closures of businesses themselves.
Kuzlik explains that the current infrastructure in downtown Rhinelander is more than 60 years old and needs to be replaced. “Digging once” and taking advantage of the infrastructure renovation, he adds, will create an opportunity to install new lighting, sidewalks and crosswalks, and a new look downtown. The utility work is expected to last into 2017, and then work on the aesthetic portion of the Streetscape project will begin.
As downtown Rhinelander will be renewed, DRI leaders fully intend for their organization to be, too.
“DRI will continue to exist,” Kuzlik says, “and will continue to advocate for downtown business owners and downtown property owners.”
For more information about DRI, visit downtownrhinelander.com. For information about Rhinelander’s Streetscape project, visit rhinelanderstreetscape.com.