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Sturgeon Bay’s west side comes back

It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Sturgeon Bay’s west side is suddenly the place to be in business. The area’s journey out of the shadows of 3rd Avenue is a lesson in patience, community, and organic urban development.

Kay Seitz opened Northern Territory on Madison Avenue five years ago. Back then many thought she was taking a big risk, but it has paid off.

“We love the west side downtown area,” she said. “It’s quaint, historic, and there’s a lot of great businesses here now.”

An influx of new stores and restaurants began arriving en mass about five years ago, with a new surge in the last year, when DC Brew, Madison Avenue Wine Shop, Spin, and the Bluefront Café all opened within a couple blocks of the Michigan Street Bridge. Madison Avenue is finally witness to the busy sidewalks and enthusiasm the city anticipated a decade ago when it embarked on an ambitious waterfront redevelopment effort that included Bridgeport Resort, DJ’s On the Bay (now Applebee’s) and the Door County Maritime Museum.

Denise Stillman, general manager of Bridgeport Resort, recalled the anticipation in the community when the redevelopment began a decade ago.

“It was exciting,” she said. “People lined up like it was an amusement park ride to take tours of the resort.”

She, like many others, hoped for a quick turnaround, but growth was slow.

“This is what I envisioned happening,” she said. “But I was surprised and disappointed it took this long.”

Though the change wasn’t immediate, Brian Kelsey, Director of the Door County Maritime Museum, traces the present surge back to the work done to change the face of the waterfront.

“We started to have attractions here,” he explained. “Before that it wasn’t really a place set up for tourism. Sturgeon Bay as a whole wasn’t really set up to attract tourists. But anytime you add a base for tourism you start creating an area where people will walk rather than drive.”

While the redevelopment of the waterfront was a planned effort, the revitalization of the Madison Avenue corridor has also been created by the efforts and vision of individual small business owners. For success to come, business owners would have to take a chance on an area that was far from a sure thing.

“Before we told people ‘you can walk to shops on the west side,’ but they wanted to walk to the other side,” Stillman explained. “Now they want to walk and shop on this side.”

Kelsey said “it’s great that people were willing to take a risk on this side.”

Jason Estes moved Sonny’s Pizzeria back to the west side after a stint on S. 3rd Avenue. Seitz moved in, and Isaksen Architects replaced an out-of-business gas station with a historic brick building on the corner of Madison Avenue and Oak Street. More businesses would soon follow.

“Sonny’s has been great for us over here,” Seitz said.

But it’s not just the new businesses that have led to the resurgence. Stillman praised those older businesses for gutting it out when the area was less desirable.

“Some people took a risk earlier and had a harder time,” she said, “but thankfully those guys and the long-time businesses like Greystone stuck it out.”

Diana McCartney opened the Madison Avenue Wine Shop last October and couldn’t be happier about the business climate she found.

“I’m doing more business than I ever did on Jefferson Street,” she said. “It’s so undiscovered and unique over here.”

Part of that unique feel comes from the diversity of shopping available. In a time when separated use planning has put offices on one block, retail on another, and services somewhere else entirely, Madison Avenue features all of these within a few blocks walk.

That diversity extends to the style and price point of the establishments as well.

An interior-decorating store sits next to a resale shop, both looking across the street at a fine wine shop beside a carpet store. The differing genres create an inclusive shopping environment.

“We get all different kinds of people,” Steitz said. “You have one extreme to the other, and we love the crossover. Being a home interior store we’re in a great spot next to the carpet shop” and other complimentary businesses. “The storefronts make it appealing, and when you drive down the hill toward the bridge you have this beautiful view of the city.”

While declining sales in recent years has embittered many business owners in the county, those on Madison Avenue expressed an excitement not only for their own prospects but for neighboring businesses as well. Seitz praised the addition of DC Brew and called Bargain Corner a “staple that brings people over,” while McCartney is excited about Spin and the work done to rehab that building.

“It’s just fun being over here,” McCartney said.

Now the businesses of Sturgeon Bay’s west side are feeding off each other to grow together. Kelsey said the Maritime Museum is at a record pace for visitors, with 16,000 people passing through since May 11, thanks largely to the popular and heavily promoted Pirates exhibit. Those visitors spill to the nearby shops and eateries, creating what Tillman believes is an experience that will create repeat customers. The influx of shopping and restaurants has helped her sell the Bridgeport to prospective guests and brought satisfaction to both visitors and herself.

“For us it’s just great,” Stillman said. “It’s nice to have the product to back what you’re selling to people. It certainly fulfills our promise to our guests a lot better.”

And it fulfills the promise many saw in the west side a decade ago.

“I see them come back to the hotel with shopping bags from stores up the street and it makes me smile.”

Kelsey expressed similar satisfaction with the revival of Madison Avenue.

“If we’re here and there’s empty stores it doesn’t bode well for us either,” he said. “It’s great that it’s finally coming together right now.”