If anything is clear while talking to Liz Milender, it’s that her position as executive director of Tomahawk Main Street is much more than a job-it’s a calling. “I’ve never worked at a more fulfilling job,” she says, explaining that she feels a connection to downtown Tomahawk’s business owners. “I believe every community deserves a thriving downtown.” So it seems that Milender, who spent nearly 15 years in northern California working in PR and media for the food and wine industry, is well suited for her current occupation.
Downtown areas across the country need enthusiasm like hers if they’re to be revitalized and stop hemorrhaging retail businesses. Tomahawk, designated a Main Street Community in 2008, is aggressively fighting the malaise that plagues so many American communities, large and small. But unlike many other cities, Tomahawk appears to be coming out on top.
A glance at the town’s history reveals that this particular community, born of the logging boom in the late 19th century and incorporated in 1891, is nothing if not resilient. In 1929, the Mitchell Hotel Fire destroyed 19 buildings on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue. The community rebuilt and over time reinvented itself as a popular destination for vacationers and retirees.
Today, as retail businesses leave downtown areas and a sluggish economy hinders revitalization efforts in many communities, Tomahawk is again being reinvented. “Our mission is historic preservation, economic revitalization and social vitality,” says Milender, “which means we want Main Street to be a fun place for people to come and spend money so those businesses can stay in business.” To that end, downtown Tomahawk is being marketed as a prime shopping destination, through partnerships with the Tomahawk Chamber of Commerce and local businesses, and social media. The organization also enjoys strong partnerships with UW-Extension Lincoln County, Lincoln County Economic Development Corporation and Nicolet College. “We’re looking to draw more tourists and draw new audiences,” Milender says. “If we have a vital downtown, then businesses and employers will want to relocate to Tomahawk.”
She has already seen many changes in the year she has been at her post. For one thing, the vacancy rate in downtown Tomahawk has spiraled downward, contrary to national trends. In April 2011, downtown Tomahawk’s vacancy rate was at 16.8 percent. Today it’s at 9 percent. Since this time last year, seven new businesses have opened in downtown Tomahawk.
“We’re thriving, and it’s because of this,” Milender says as she gestures to indicate rolling up her sleeves.
Hard work is indeed a vital part of the effort to renew downtown Tomahawk and the community is lucky to have people willing to work together, and to give of their time and effort. Milender cites a recent example of a downtown building that had been burned and was identified as a hindrance to recruiting new businesses. Volunteers painted the building and gave it a facelift, so to speak, in less than 24 hours. Without that effort on the part of volunteers, the building may have remained an eyesore indefinitely. That’s because, if a project requires funding that isn’t available, then that project is on hold. “The community has to want to do it,” Milender says.
Raising funds for revitalization projects is a major challenge for Tomahawk Main Street. Downtown property owners’ payments into the business improvement district make up about one-third of TMS’s budget, so the organization depends on money from fundraising events and donations. Volunteer help is also a large part of the group’s success.
The area’s natural assets figure prominently in promoting the community as a place to vacation and to live, and for a small town, Tomahawk has a lot work with. The community of 3,300 boasts 10 parks along with numerous trails, including the Hiawatha State Trail, for biking, hiking, snowmobiling and other activities. There are more than 15 lakes and flowages in the vicinity. “We recognize that those who come to the Northwoods come to enjoy the natural wonders,” says Milender. That recognition was instrumental in the creation of a new tagline the organization will launch this year, “All trails lead to downtown Tomahawk.”
Downtown Tomahawk promotions aren’t geared only toward shoppers and tourists; they’re also aimed at attracting prospective business owners. Take, for example, Opportunity Knocks, a promotion held last August to highlight commercial properties available in downtown Tomahawk. Six of downtown Tomahawk’s new businesses opened after Opportunity Knocks was held, and one of those businesses actually committed on the day of the event to opening in Tomahawk.
The people at TMS will continue their aggressive pursuit of visitors and new businesses in 2012 and beyond. Last month, TMS and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation held a seminar for entrepreneurs, property owners, business owners and others with a stake in downtown Tomahawk’s future. Topics discussed at the event included attracting customers to Tomahawk, beginning or expanding a business, renting or selling property, connecting with other entrepreneurs and more.
Several events have been held to attract shoppers, among them “Win the Window,” a local shopping promotion held over the holidays. The 2011 event drew twice as many entries as that held the previous year. TMS collaborates with the Tomahawk Chamber of Commerce, WJJQ Radio and the City of Tomahawk on several other events and initiatives, among them shop local campaigns, Music on Main, the annual brat fry and bonfire, lunch and learn events, and the “Try Tomahawk First-It’s Personal” campaign that was created to promote Tomahawk businesses while the North Fourth Street Bridge was being replaced last year.
The 2012 promotions aimed at shoppers and businesses have already started, and along with well-known annual events will be some new promotions. For example, “Lovers’ Lane,” a new effort promoting shopping in downtown Tomahawk is currently being held. A new fundraising and awareness campaign, Vision 20/20, will be launched in the spring. The organization is also working with partners on directional signs and a sidewalk cafe ordinance.
There are plenty of Main Street Communities across the country working toward revitalizing their downtown areas, but participating in the program, which offers valuable guidance, isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success. For revitalization efforts to be successful, main street organizations also need members with determination and the ability to think creatively. Those involved with Tomahawk Main Street Inc. and their many partners have demonstrated those traits, along a willingness to work together, both among themselves and with entities outside the organization.
“That’s where our strength lies,” Milender says. “There’s not one person, including myself, who can take credit for what we’ve accomplished.”
For more information about Tomahawk Main Street Inc., log on to tomahawkmainstreet.org.
This story first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Northwoods Commerce magazine.