Mendim Tairi cuts a customer’s hair at The Barbershop in Prairie du Chien. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
After six years of cutting hair in his home country of Macedonia, Mendim Tairi emigrated to the United States and began working in the trade in Wisconsin — in Janesville for a year, then moving to Prairie du Chien, where a close friend from his native land owned a restaurant.
There Tairi took a job cutting hair at a discount salon inside the local Walmart store. But he always hoped to open his own shop. After four years, the opportunity arrived in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic didn’t deter Mendim or his wife, Melissa, a native of the area whom he met and married. “It’s different when you work for yourself,” Mendim says as he tidies up the shop after a customer. “It’s better.”
After saving what money they could, they found a vacant storefront on Blackhawk Avenue, cleaned it out, scrubbed the floors and repainted it with bright white walls on three sides and the fourth with broad, diagonal red, white and blue stripes to evoke the traditional look of a barber pole. They opened on Labor Day of 2021.
A few blocks up the street is The Sweet Tooth. Crystal and Brian Priebe had first opened the store in another nearby location at the end of 2019. That was a pop-up store — a three-month deal with no long-term commitment.
As the pop-up period was winding down, the couple saw that business was good and decided to stay. They signed a lease on that property. “Then the pandemic hit,” Crystal Priebe says.
They swallowed hard and kept going. In February 2021, the couple bought a vacant storefront across the street and spent the next nine months getting ready to move in. The new Sweet Tooth opened on the Saturday after Thanksgiving — Small Business Saturday.
Bounceback for new businesses
Both businesses were recipients of a $10,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) in one of the agency’s business aid programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: the Main Street Bounceback.
In Prairie du Chien, they are also part of a larger story: the city’s ongoing campaign to infuse new energy into the commercial district at the center of town and return it to the thriving scene that it once was.
If we want people to stay in Wisconsin and live in Wisconsin, then they want to have good communities to live in.
– Missy Hughes, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
The Bounceback grants were designed to reach a group of business owners who had been left behind by previous relief. Earlier aid programs had focused on established small businesses that could show a year or more of revenue from before the pandemic.
“One of the real gaps was in businesses that had not yet been up and running in March of 2020, when the pandemic hit,” says Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO at WEDC. “So for all these businesses that had been brave enough to start during the pandemic, we weren’t really able to get them resources.” The Bounceback grants were conceived to fill that gap, directing funds to businesses that moved into existing, vacant commercial properties.
Hughes considers helping to strengthen small businesses — and through them, the communities in which they operate — an important part of the WEDC’s mission.
“If we want people to stay in Wisconsin and live in Wisconsin, then they want to have good communities to live in,” she says. “Part of that is having a really vibrant, small business community.”
That doesn’t mean abandoning WEDC’s ongoing work engaging with large companies that are already in Wisconsin or are considering plans to move here, Hughes adds. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time, and we can support our large businesses, but we can also support our small businesses.”
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River at the southwestern edge of Wisconsin, Prairie du Chien boasts that it is the state’s second-oldest city, tracing its roots back to a fur trading post established in 1685. (The oldest is Green Bay, which dates its start to 1634, also as a French trading post.)
In two years, Prairie du Chien will mark the 350th anniversary since the French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet passed through the area. And in 2022, the city will mark the 150th anniversary of its incorporation in 1872.
Like many small communities, Prairie du Chien has seen outlying development change the face of downtown.
A generation ago, downtown was still thriving with long-established retailers. There were places like Kozelka’s Men’s Wear and Wall Street, a women’s clothing store. That’s how Tammie Katzung remembers it from her youth, growing up in a city 30 miles away and about half the size of Prairie du Chien. “I grew up in Boscobel,” says Katzung. “This where you came to shop and go to the movies and everything.”
The traditional men’s and women’s clothing stores have disappeared in the last half-dozen years, the owners, or their latest generation, retiring without successors and moving away. Katzung, on the other hand, has stuck around.
Today Katzung owns a downtown building that is the site of a popular local restaurant. She’s also the Main Street program manager for Prairie du Chien, linking the city with the National Main Street Center. That program, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, helps local communities seeking to strengthen their downtown commercial districts.
(While both the National Main Street Center and WEDC’s Main Street Bounceback program tie their names to the American archetype for the center of small-town commerce, they have no connection with each other.)
The city’s heritage and its riverfront location in rugged Southwestern Wisconsin, untouched by the glaciers that left their mark on most of the rest of the state, has long made it a tourist attraction. Restoring downtown’s vibrancy can both strengthen the tourist trade and help bolster businesses already there, business owners agree.
The COVID-19 pandemic shook things up. But it has also helped generate the kind of energy that comes from urgency.
When we get people downtown, it’s good for everybody.
– Carol Roth of Driftless Development
At The Pickett Fence, a downtown fabric and quilt shop that opened in 1998, owner Louanne Davis turned to streaming video to stay in virtual contact with customers who could not shop in person when the pandemic arrived. That evolved into a weekly Facebook Live program that draws customers from around the world.
Davis also adapted to enable online ordering, accepting payment via PayPal. “We haven’t seen a lot of orders off the website,” she says, but the website gets traffic from people wanting to know what she sells. “We have very high sales from our Facebook live shows, averaging $1,000-1,500 a night.”
She welcomes the influx of new stores. “With more businesses opening downtown it helps everyone by creating more foot traffic and interest.”
“I think our downtown is growing here in Prairie du Chien,” says Teresa Champion, who has been in business since 2012 selling the works of local and regional artisans at the Planted Tree.
Her store currently shares space in the Knowlton House, a historic landmark and home to the local historical society. “There’s not much vacant here, and that’s a good sign,” Champion says.
“When we get people downtown, it’s good for everybody,” says Carol Roth, executive director of Driftless Development — the combined city and county economic development corporation. The job puts her in charge of economic development for the whole of Crawford County. “Prairie du Chien is our front door,” she says.
Old and new, side by side
In Prairie du Chien, “Main Street” is Blackhawk Avenue along with a couple of blocks on either side of that thoroughfare. The new businesses mix with some older holdouts against the migration to the edge of town where the Big Box stores have clustered.
Stark’s Sports Shop, founded in 1944, is now in its third generation of family ownership with a selection of merchandise that has evolved over the years — from bicycles to washing machines and a period when it was a leading Honda motorcycle dealer.
“Before the Walmarts were in existence this store turned into a toy store over Christmas,” says Ron Stark, the third-generation owner.
Today its eclectic selection of merchandise includes hunting and fishing gear, boats and boat motors, meats, cheeses and beverages, leading with a wide array of wines, beers and liquor. The business has survived downtown by changing in response to demand and stressing customer service, which Stark sees as the best defense against chain store competitors on the outskirts of town.
He welcomes newcomers to the neighborhood. “Anytime you can increase the foot traffic downtown it’s a benefit to us,” Stark says.
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The city also has been filling the gap left by departures. The Funky Zebra, a new boutique and part of a group of Iowa-based stores, has opened just across the street from where the women’s clothing store Wall Street was until it closed about three years ago. And now the old Wall Street building has taken on a new life.
For two years the owner used the space as what Katzung calls a rummage sale — one in which the merchandise didn’t seem to move much. Katzung, who just stepped into her Main Street business promotion role this fall, persuaded the owner to clear it out and lease it instead for a new purpose.
Inspired by holiday season Christkindlmarkets in Chicago, Milwaukee, Sparta and elsewhere around the Midwest, Katzung enlisted a collection of local vendors who had crafts, artwork and similar products to sell, and they turned the old clothing store into a sort of retail incubator that opened in November.
The result is The Market, where 24 vendors currently participate. They pay a fee to defray the rental and utility costs, and each takes a shift at minding the store when it’s open. After the holiday season it will close for remodeling, and one of the participating vendors is planning to assume responsibility for The Market while opening it up to additional vendors to share the space, Katzung says.
A new generation
Crystal Priebe recalls growing up in the community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “When I was little I remember a lot more retail stories on the street,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen a lot of retail businesses move out, and I have been sad about that.”
A favorite childhood memory was a local variety store with a big candy display case. The Sweet Tooth’s Bounceback grant helped pay for her and her husband, Brian, to buy the case for their new store. “I was very excited when I could have another shop down here,” she says.
When Mendim and Melissa Tairi were first making plans for The Barbershop, they were set on putting it downtown. “It’s definitely where we wanted to be,” Melissa Tairi says. “There’s a lot of traffic here, with more stores. We really found a community with the downtown businesses.”
The Bounceback grant has helped them buy equipment and pay for signage that will be installed soon. “We had very little capital,” says Melissa Tairi. Both she and Priebe credit Roth and Driftless Development for telling them about the grants and encouraging them to apply.
Other plans are in gestation in the city. One comes from the Opportunity Center — a nonprofit organization that serves developmentally disabled adults and people with dementia.
We really found a community with the downtown businesses.
– Melissa Tairi of The Barbershop
The center has adult day care as well as training and employment programs for some of its clients. The jobs pay full wages — not the sub-minimum wages that state law still permits for special programs for the developmentally disabled, says Opportunity Center CEO Pam Ritchie. They work in a janitorial service and a coffee shop called Café Hope, which occupies the building that was once Kozelka’s Men’s Wear. There are also a kitchen and greenhouses.
A few months ago, Ritchie says, social workers in the community who needed child care for their children asked her if the center’s adult day care program could be expanded to add a child care program.
She embraced the suggestion, but implementing it won’t be possible without major regulatory changes, Ritchie says. She’s discussing those issues with the state Department of Children and Families and the Department of Health Services.
“I want to see a generation of children grow up with people with disabilities in their everyday lives,” Ritchie says.
She hopes to enlist the local school district and technical college to provide training for prospective workers for the envisioned intergenerational and “inter-ability” care center. Her agenda also includes persuading local businesses to help develop a model that would subsidize the cost so that child care is affordable for working parents and child care workers can get family-sustaining wages.
For Roth, it’s another part of the puzzle that can help the continued revival of Prairie du Chien’s business community, with an impact that reaches far beyond the city.
“This is going to be a model,” Roth says.
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