End of an era: Downtown Rhinelander leader reflects on positives
By Eileen Persike
The stack of paperwork on Maggie Steffen’s desk is growing shorter by the day. One week until her job as executive director of Downtown Rhinelander, Inc. (DRI) is eliminated and Steffen is making lists for volunteers and checking the budget. Reflecting over the past three and a half years of ups and downs, the leader of the organization had a tear in her eye.
“I’m going to miss the people– So many people who, because I asked, or because they knew they were helping me – just stopped by to help or offer something that would make a difference,” Steffen said. “You tend to look at the negative side, saying “I can’t get any volunteers,” and you always have that kind of issue but at the end of the day there was always somebody who came out to help.”
DRI was, in effect, defunded last spring when a group of downtown property owners petitioned to end the Business Improvement District. That extra tax paid for DRI staff and many of the projects, as well as parking lot maintenance and garbage cans on downtown streets. The continuation of those things are at this point, uncertain.
Steffen said she is proud of the accomplishments of DRI during her tenure, such as the annual downtown open house for available properties, which has been ongoing for three years, and, “Every time we do it we manage to get a tenant for downtown.”
Creating the successful signature event, Potatofest is another high point, as well as the evolution of Hodags on Parade.
“We had an event that had run its course,” she explained. “So changing from the big to small Hodags, making them more affordable, and changing the Hodag Howl auction to the Halloween party we have today is really cool.”
DRI may not be as strong as it was, but it will continue to operate, as a volunteer-run organization. The office on Davenport Street will be closed, but Steffen said the door will still be open for partnerships to form and businesses and DRI to help one another.
“People need to keep downtown in mind. This year will be a tough one [due to the Streetscape project], but don’t think about how hard it will be to get there,” Steffen said. “Once a week make an effort to come downtown and help the businesses down here, because when it’s done it’s going to be worth it.”
DRI has been around for ten years but prior to that there had been other organizations with a downtown focus, according to Steffen. “I have no doubt about the fact that something will regenerate and DRI will get back to the strength it was.”
After December 15 comes and goes, and Maggie Steffen no longer wears the many hats of an executive director, she says she is not sure where her next steps will take her, but she is confident the downtown will be okay.
“The community,” she said, “Is a really good community with a lot of good people who want to do the right thing.”