Racine has turned a corner in attracting business to the area over the past year, and more are on the way. Devin Sutherland, executive director for the Downtown Racine Corp., said his office has “been slammed” with people asking about where to open a new business. Almost every day there’s a new prospect. This year, seven new business are calling Racine home or are in the process of opening, three established businesses relocated or expanded, three downtown buildings are being renovated and three new office tenants have brought 30 new employees downtown. “This has been the busiest first quarter for new businesses opening in Racine that I can remember happening in a long time,” Sutherland said.

The Buzz About Business

With the recession losing its grip on Racine, more people employed, and less uncertainty in the market — business owners are starting to feel more comfortable expanding and growing their businesses. Recruiting efforts by the city and county have also spurred on projects. Over the past year, most of the growth has been occurring in the Uptown area with Petals By Felicia, The Branch at 1501, Kabab and Grill, Catfish and More, and The Covenant at Murray Mansion. Sutherland also noted that while Tina’s Dress Boutique at 503 6th St. closed last week, the woman who took the business over plans to open a new location in Uptown. Downtown a number of businesses have also expanded or moved to vacant spaces, including Lighthouse Gallery & Gifts, The Nash, The Office at 410 Main, and KDS Construction Services. Sutherland said that Out of the Pan plans to move into the old Red Cross building on Sixth Street. And the Nest Playspace is expected to open this summer. “There’s great stuff happening all over town,” he said. “Even in the downtown area — when people are looking for space — I don’t have a lot of good stuff left. We certainly have some spaces that we need to fill. But we’ve got some spaces that we need to improve before they become rentable spaces.” To help, the city just implemented a white box program, which allows dollars from its intergovernmental revenue funds to be used by businesses to rehab first floor retail buildings that are vacant. The matching grant helps to pay for projects that will help buildings get up to code and make them rentable. About a dozen businesses have applied for the grant. “So I think the white box program is playing a key role in making that happen too,” he said. A woman from Chicago is opening a business at 232 Main St. She hasn’t announced yet what her business is going to be, but she previously ran a gallery in Chicago. “She realized that the drive from downtown Racine to Abbott Labs is much more pleasant than from downtown Chicago…. I think those are cool stories because once again you are seeing the convenience factor,” he said. “While we complain about the eight mile drive from here to the Interstate… If you had done the drive in Chicago, you’d realize that drive from Racine is a piece of cake.” Two more breweries may be on the horizon. That’s in addition to The Benjamin Beer Company and the one DP Wigley is working on, which is also still in the works. The owners are working on site selection now. And one is working with Jim Kennedy, the owner of Benjamin Beer. “All of them collectively feel that the more micro-breweries the better, like having that concentration really establishes you as a destination,” he said. One of the breweries is reviewing a lease now. But the state permitting process is lengthy so it might not be until November or December before the business opens. But they will be getting their lease signed soon, Sutherland said. “We’re certainly becoming a destination for food and beverage,” Sutherland said. “And really the data we’re reviewing says that you’ve got to be more than just retail-centered because it’s so easy just to shop on Amazon. You have to be able to provide an experience.”

Hotel and Event Center Impact?

The hotel and event center has a potential to help downtown, but the Downtown Racine Corporation — as an organization — still has a lot of questions on how it will be financed, Sutherland said. “We’re not asking anybody to pull the trigger and write a check today. We want to understand what the impact is to the community and taxpayers,” he said. Sutherland believes that having a hotel and convention center will help keep more dollars in Racine’s economy versus Milwaukee or Chicago. He believes the sports piece will be a relatively small part of how the space is used, but sees more opportunities for tradeshows and conventions.

Challenges?

Racine still needs to focus on telling its story better and DRC needs to reach out to other markets to attract more tourism. Sutherland highlighted how a number of boaters from Illinois have adopted Racine as their second home. “You can buy a lakefront condo that is 2,000 square feet for $300,000, but you would spend $1 million for that same view in Chicago for 500 square feet,” Sutherland said. “So they love it. They absolutely love it. That’s the story we need to share more.”  

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.