Fox Lake mayor trying to solve stop-and-shop issue
Schmit wants people to stay in town
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Many Fox Lake mayors have watched cars zip through downtown on the way to Wisconsin and wondered what can be done to get those people to stop and shop.
They've asked the same question about what it takes to draw weekend Chain O' Lakes boaters off the water and onto dry land so they can spend money in stores along Nippersink Boulevard.
Yet, despite countless attempts by officials to capitalize on Fox Lake's unique location and make it a destination, those tourists and travelers — and their potential financial boost for local businesses — remain elusive.
"It's not an easy thing to do," said Fox Lake Trustee Nancy Koske, who spent four years trying to solve that issue while serving as mayor between 2001 and 2005. "It's exceptionally hard to get someone off Route 12 and into something other than a gas station."
Donny Schmit is the village's latest mayor to take a shot at finding a way to cash in on the 20,000 vehicles that pass through town on Route 12 daily and the 25,000 boaters using the Chain annually.
Schmit said one way to get cars to stop and boats to land is to fill vacant storefronts with viable retailers selling wares people need. He sees a combination of resurrecting past programs to spruce up the village and launching a marketing effort to attract new retailers as the key.
"My goal is to see two to three new businesses replace empty storefronts every year," he said.
Schmit said he thinks the village has been too strict with retailers in the past, and relaxing some regulations on signage and streamlining the permitting process should help.
"I believe we need to work more with retailers and compromise more than we did in the past," he said. "We need to make the town more retail and developer friendly."
He said the village has brought in a marketing consultant to get important village information to retailers and promote Fox Lake to developers. He consulted with other mayors after his election in April and learned that attracting business is about showing the right numbers to retailers to spark their interest.
For $30,000 a year, the consultant will analyze Fox Lake to determine what stores could fit in and be successful, Schmit said. The consultant will then contact and target successful retailers to move in and set up shop.
"They showed us how much our residents are spending outside of our community on things everyone needs," Schmit said, pointing out that Fox Lake lacks a store that sells shoes.
But to entice retailers, developers and shoppers to come to the village and spend money, Schmit said Fox Lake needs to look presentable.
To help, the village is resurrecting two dormant efforts designed to polish its appearance — the facade improvement program to help spruce up storefronts in the business district, and the "Promote Fox Lake" cleanup program.
The village board earmarked $44,000 to the facade program to encourage business and property owners to improve their storefronts, Schmitt said. Before it was cut in 2008 due to a lack of funding, the program helped 30 business owners make improvements during a six-year stretch.
Under the renewed initiative, property owners will receive $4,000 for work on their storefronts, down from the $5,000 the village offered in the past. It's enough to get the ball rolling, Schmit said.
"Anything to make the town more attractive to retailers is what we are shooting for," he said.
Schmit said revenue collected from video gambling will offset facade program costs.
"Promote Fox Lake" was brought out of mothballs to coordinate beautification projects.
Village Parks and Recreation Supervisor Amy Serafin, who serves as president of the program, said it will start small with efforts such as planting flowers and cleaning up roadways and park areas. Eventually, she said, the plan is to develop funding for larger projects.
To help strengthen its cause, Serafin said, the village and Grant Township each kicked in $500 so "Promote Fox Lake" could obtain a 501(c)3 charity license, making any donations a tax write off for the contributor.
"Things kind of went dormant before because we were unable to generate funds for bigger projects that the group wanted to do in the past," she said. "Having that 501(c)3 charity license should help with fundraising efforts."
The group will next focus on a one-year and a five-year plan, she added.
Linnea Pioro, executive director of the Fox Lake Chamber, said the new programs will go a long way to support the business district and motivate business owners to help.
"When you have something like Promote Fox Lake and the facade program working, it re-energizes the business owners and makes them want to beautify the town," Pioro said. "Everyone needs to work together because, in the end, everyone benefits."
While those programs alone may not get people to stop and shop in Fox Lake, Schmit said they could go a long way to making the town more attractive to potential shoppers and developers.
"I hope all of this works," he said. "We've met many developers in the recent months and there are some things in the works."
Koske said it's a step in the right direction, but the only way to consistently bring in more business over the long haul is to hire a full-time community development director.
"My feeling is that Donny has taken the right initiative, but it's only a start," she said. "Eventually, we will need to hire someone to promote Fox Lake 24-7."
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