At one time, small neighborhood shops sprouted up all over the city of Rhinelander. Milk, bread and other essentials were within walking distance of almost everyone.
Then, as family cars became more prevalent, bigger downtown stores drew more and more customers, and small shops began to close. In recent decades, downtown merchants have felt the effects of competition from large national retailers, or “big box stores.”
Times change, but a group of forward-looking business people are beginning to see the situation in a different light. Cooperating instead of competing for customers is being seen as advantageous to all area businesses.
In part, this cooperation is possible because of a unique situation in Rhinelander, according to Dan Kuzlik, UW-Extension Economic Development Agent. “When Walmart moved into the area, it wasn’t way outside the city on an interstate, as you find in most areas of the country,” he explains.
“Establishing itself on Lincoln Street, not far from our historic downtown area, makes it possible for us to give customers a total shopping experience” he says. “With so much to choose from, we can satisfy all our customers’ needs.”
Kuzlik is head of the Economic Restructuring Committee of Downtown Rhinelander Inc. (DRI). At a recent meeting between DRI and several area big box stores, ideas were discussed and relationships forged.
It hasn’t been easy to sell the idea, admits Kuzlik. “People are stuck in the ‘us versus them’ mindset,” he says. “Downtown businesses asked, ‘Why should we cooperate, what’s in it for us?'”
What’s in it, says Kuzlik, is a huge customer base. “Having big box stores so close means more potential customers,” he explains. “Sure, small shops can’t compete on price or inventory, but if we can get shoppers into downtown, they can offer unique products and personalized service.”
Since Walmart opened in 1992, Lincoln Street has become the most heavily traveled street in the city, according to Kuzlik. “The whole street has filled in with valuable business properties, better infrastructure and a good mix of stores. The new sidewalks will add to accessibility for shoppers.”
Kuzlik also sees a strong downtown as an asset for big box stores. “These corporations were drawn here because Rhinelander is a retail, medical and industrial hub for northern Wisconsin,” he says. “They wouldn’t be here in the first place if Rhinelander wasn’t a strong community.”
Rhinelander Walmart general manager Brent Sundby agrees, citing a recent survey showing just 49 percent of customers from the Rhinelander zip code. “If you look at the geography of the area, you see that Rhinelander serves a large area. We draw customers from Tomahawk, Park Falls, Woodruff… many communities north and west of here.”
Kuzlik describes Rhinelander’s customer base as a large “V” reaching north, with local businesses at the bottom tip. “Our market is about 200,000 people,” he says. “During the busy summer months, that can stretch to one-half million.
“About 50 percent of homes in Oneida County are seasonal residences, and that number is even higher in Vilas County,” Kuzlik continues. “Unlike smaller tourist-oriented communities further north, though, Rhinelander stores are open all year. That’s something people count on.
“We’ve learned to cater to our customer base. When folks come up here to their summer places, chances are they’ve already shopped for what they need. What we can offer at our downtown businesses are unique items and great service.”
Sundby echoes that idea, explaining that while Walmart carries a large selection, specialty merchandise may not be available there. “We will send someone to a downtown specialty store if we don’t have what they want,” he says. For example, “We make a lot of referrals to Mel’s Trading Post for sporting goods. Satisfying the customer is very important to us.”
Sundby, his wife, Tricia, and two young daughters have called Rhinelander home for the past 10 years. “There is a unique situation here,” he says. “Virtually every other Walmart in the country is parked on an interstate a long way from the nearest downtown area.
“With the ease of travel linking us up with downtown, it’s mutually beneficial,” he continues. “I know it helps us and I would have to say it helps them as well. A strong community and a vital downtown are important to us.”
The local Walmart employs 320 full-time and part-time Northwoods residents and over the past 10 years has contributed one-half million dollars in charitable donations to the community, according to Sundby. “We are thankful that we’re able to do that,” he says. “Our employee volunteer opportunities program and our arrangement with the local food pantry are other ways we are able to help out.”
Sundby was happy with the recent meeting with DRI, also attended by managers of Office Max and Home Depot. “I hope we can continue these talks,” he says. “Good communication, referrals and promotions are things we’re considering.”
DRI is looking at erecting better signage to direct Lincoln Street shoppers downtown, as well as enhancing the new sidewalks with rest stops to help increase foot traffic. Expanded hours of operation downtown, including early morning times, are being discussed.
Kuzlik is optimistic about the future. “We’re looking toward more networking,” he says. “Soon, you’ll see a flow between Lincoln Street and Main Street. You’ll see a great opportunity for a wonderful, complete shopping experience in Rhinelander.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander.
This article first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Northwoods Commerce magazine.