FOND DU LAC — Two years ago, Lawrence Foster identified an obstacle in downtown Fond du Lac.
“I really started digging into what were some of the issues with our downtown,” Foster said. “It really got me thinking of, 'Okay, it’s a little bit stagnant. How can we take this a step further?'”
Foster now co-owns Gathered Roots on Main Street in downtown Fond du Lac. Gathered Roots sells items from local Fond du Lac area vendors.
“When we came in, we partnered with these other businesses to try to create that cross traffic of keeping people down here,” Foster said. “So we'll come up with deals like, 'Hey, now that you're here, head over to this business, they have this special going on,' and vice versa. We're all working together to try to keep those people on this block. “
It’s a challenge that Fond du Lac City Manager Joe Moore said was a top priority for the city for several years.
“Downtowns, especially downtowns in Midwestern cities, for many years I've been challenged I think partly because big box stores have created a real competitive disadvantage for small businesses that were on Main Streets,” Moore said. “I think that online shopping has created a lot of challenges also.”
But Moore said things are starting to turn around.
“There have been so many successes over the last many years,” Moore said. “I feel like our downtown has reached a point where it's self-sustaining.”
Foster said that the businesses work closely with the city and many of them meet weekly to discuss how to improve the downtown.
“All of us business owners kind of in the downtown area are really good about supporting each other, and we kind of have a teamwork thing going,” Foster said.
Promoting other businesses is “instrumental,” said Roxanne Abler, who runs a photography business on Main Street.
“A lot of people unfortunately don't know that a lot of the small businesses actually even exist here, because they're used to shopping and the bigger the bigger stores,” Abler said. “But as long as the small business owners kind of promote each other, we get more of the traffic, people hearing about our business.”
The Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership works closely with these businesses, and organizes events downtown like a cookie walk or summer festivals to bring people to the businesses. Executive director Amy Hansen said they have 54 event days downtown, and are constantly adding more.
“All of these events are designed to get people into businesses,” Hansen said. “There's a lot of cars going by, but you don't always notice... what's here.”
Hansen said 30 businesses opened in Fond du Lac this year alone, bringing the total to 248 businesses, 76% of which are small, locally-owned businesses.
But business owners say there’s still work to be done.
“A lot of the business owners are still feeling like there's a bit of a struggle, I think, with promotion,” Abler said.
The city has held public meetings to discuss the future of the downtown, which Foster said is essential.
“The public really needs to be involved, too, because it's for everybody,” Foster said.
Hansen said one big future plan will be a Food Hall project. The City of Fond du Lac Redevelopment Authority purchased a property on Main Street that will house seven to eight restaurants. The project is currently in the design phase, and Hansen said it is set to open in 2024.
Moore said any investment in downtown, is an investment in the city as a whole.
"A healthy downtown I think indicates a healthy community, a healthy city," Moore said. "It's a place where I think you'll find in any city people want to gather."