Governor Tony Evers and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes visited Washburn on November 18 to see how the Main Street Bounceback Grants have transformed the small Bayfield County city’s downtown.
“Small businesses are the heart and soul of our Wisconsin communities,” Governor Evers said. “These businesses not only provide jobs and build wealth, they bring vitality and life to our downtowns. The creativity and spirit these business owners bring is part of what makes Wisconsin a wonderful place to live.”
In Washburn, a city of just under 2,000 people on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay, residents can now receive physical therapy, check out the local art scene and get a good martini without leaving town thanks in part to the Main Street Bounceback grant program.
“The grant has been incredible,” said artist John Hopkins, who with his wife and fellow artist Susan Lince received a grant to open an art gallery that celebrates the work of artists living near the Wisconsin Lake Superior National Scenic Byway. “That is an engine of growth in a community that was essentially a drive-thru thru community. We have something wonderful here … Washburn is more than anyone ever thought of us.”
In April, Governor Evers announced $50 million in state funding for the Main Street Bounceback grants, which provide $10,000 to businesses and nonprofits who move into vacant commercial properties. Since applications opened in August, more than 1,000 businesses have received the $10,000 grants.
The Washburn Area Chamber of Commerce has helped businesses secure nine Bounceback grants in the city itself and two more outside Washburn, said Melissa Martinez, the chamber’s executive director. Another two grants are in the application process and more are expected, Martinez said. This summer the chamber held a “mass ribbon-cutting” to welcome all the new businesses.
For years, artist and photographer Jamey Penney-Ritter has celebrated Washburn and Northern Wisconsin in her work. The Superior native creates unique, vintage-style travel posters of Wisconsin places and landmarks.
“It’s a love letter to Wisconsin,” Penney-Ritter said of her work, which includes more than 140 different designs. “I have this whole collection devoted to Wisconsin.”
And while fans could find Penney-Ritter’s posters before on display at places like Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office, now they can visit her studio along Washburn’s main street. She moved from her home’s basement into a building that was once Bayfield County’s first bank and uses the vault to store her artwork.
The Main Street Bounceback grant has allowed her to purchase new equipment for her business and prepay her rent. She said the grant was able to set her up for success and she’s having her best year yet in sales.
Sheila Desjarlais’ new children’s boutique, Kiddiwink Kids, has become known for its sensory kits – homemade play dough, small figures and accessories that can be played with in many different ways.
Creating her own sensory kits was a necessity for Desjarlais, who was working as an office manager when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and child care centers closed. She had to have something that could hold a preschooler’s attention while Desjarlais worked.
“I ended up bringing my 3-year-old daughter to work every day in a fish processing plant,” Desjarlais said. “I’m trying to make it easier on parents. It’s really stressful to have your kids with you (when working) and not just sit them in front of the TV.”
Martinez said that the new businesses have revitalized the city – not only for visitors but for locals as well.
“We had a lot of vacant buildings, a lot of empty space (before the grants)” Martinez said. “It says a lot about our community that businesses are willing to open in such uncertain times.”
It was crucial for everyone to get out and patronize Wisconsin’s small businesses during the holiday season and year-round, Hughes said. Buying local was what will keep downtowns humming.
“The work I do every day at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation is about making the best investments in Wisconsin and its people,” Hughes said. “Shop Small Wisconsin is a way for everyone to invest in their community. On average about 67 cents of every dollar spent at a local business stays in the community.”
Governor Evers and Hughes decided to launch the Shop Small Wisconsin initiative in Washburn as Main Street Bounceback businesses across the state are preparing for their first holiday shopping season in their new spaces. Evers and his cabinet secretaries will be buying their holiday gifts at locally owned businesses and encouraging everyone to Shop Small Wisconsin.
The state’s unique, locally owned businesses will be celebrated November 27 on Shop Small Wisconsin Day, when members of Governor Evers’ cabinet will be shopping in communities throughout Wisconsin. Customers can also support Wisconsin’s small businesses without leaving home. Discover great gift ideas and unique Wisconsin businesses online at mainstreetwi.com.