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The good news for people in the hospitality or retail business, or any business reliant on face-to-face dealings, there are about 230,000 people living within 15 miles of downtown Racine’s Monument Square. They are likely to know how to find you. It’s a different story for visitors to the city and surrounding areas.

It’s a far different experience for visitors to the area. Coming into the community having not visited in the past, a visitor is likely to be discouraged by awkward street layouts, as well as a lack of directional and informational signs.

Weeklong investigation

Roger Brooks of Destination Development Association, spent more than a week exploring the community in a “secret shopper” assignment for Real Racine. A Friday morning presentation at Memorial Hall was the second of two events that looked at Racine through the eyes of a visitor. Especially a visitor who came to town having done no advance research and had to discover everything about the community upon arrival.

A similar event earlier in the week in Burlington looked at the western county.

Brooks was effusive with compliments in his 2.5-hour presentation, but equally blunt in pointing out a litany of issues that would weigh negatively on a visitor. Brooks, who has taken on a similar task for 1,500 other communities, told the crowd of about 100, that first he looks at how a community markets itself. “Marketing will bring people to Racine ONCE,” he said. “Then people will ask: ‘What else do you have for us to do?’”

That first impression is not only a factor in tourist visits, it is also what will help drive the decision to relocate here. And, it plays a huge factor in the decision-making process of businesses large and small, who every day compare Racine with similar locations.

Schools, recreation, festivals, family-focused facilities and events are every bit as important as an available workforce in many cases.

For people looking to move here, Brooks suggests they are asking, “Is this the kind of place I want to live and raise a family?”

Brooks adds that for businesses eyeing the area, they are probably saying: “With Foxconn coming, where would I want to invest?”

“Community development is leading (overall) economic development and tourism” in order of importance to communities, Brooks said, but added, “Tourism is the front door to your non-tourism economic development. Tourism is the purest form of economic development.”

‘I almost turned around’

The barriers for Racine to enjoy the plus side of this kind of economic development are stacked kind of high, he said, noting the challenges started from the moment Brooks and his wife drove into Racine from Interstate 94.

He experienced frustrations navigating the city’s surface streets and even finding downtown. He noted an almost total lack of directional or wayfinding signs. “Racine is not on a grid pattern,” he noted, as some audience members groaned in apparent agreement. “I almost turned around and went back.”

He said he was discouraged by the neighborhoods he transversed while looking for downtown. “It was my first half hour in Racine and I am thinking this is beginning to look like Gary (Indiana).”

His dismay turned around, upon finally finding Main Street and the general downtown area. “You have the best downtown in the state of Wisconsin,” he told the audience.

Books was pleased by the amount of lakefront open to the public, but equally discouraged by the lack of services and amenities. He said the waterfront should have three more hotels. He also suggested new or expanded uses for Festival Hall.

And a lack of food vendors along two downtown waterfront and North Beach were examples of places the city should be monetizing its assets.

Other suggestions from Roger Brooks

Rex Davenport

Rex Davenport is a reporter, editor and editorial project manager with more than 40 years of experience in newspaper, business magazines and other content channels.