Wauwatosa - The Village Improvement District held a "Sneak-a-Peek" Sept. 22 to help businesses in the area overcome the difficult times they are experiencing due to the ongoing construction. The rebuilding of streets and infrastructure on State Street, Harwood Avenue and the surrounding area has affected the bottom line of shops, restaurants and bars and many are struggling to stay open.

"We are having an event highlighting the work done and encouraging people to come down and climb the hurdles and barricades," Executive Director Jim Plaisted said. "(The event) can help us and the businesses get through the last phases of construction."

The project is on target to be completed around the Thanksgiving holiday, but as always the construction schedule is weather dependent. Currently scheduled for next week is the build-out of curbs and gutters; also the sidewalks will take shape and the light poles will be installed. The following week will see the beginning of the concrete and asphalt road installation.

Businesses concerned

Despite a downturn in foot traffic for the village businesses there is vision and appreciation for what the long-term benefits of the project will bring.

"I know when it is done it is going to be really great," Deb Fowler, owner of The Flower Lady said. "It will look beautiful and it will draw people down here."

Fowler will be grateful when the construction is complete, but currently she is scrambling to stay in business creating settings for weddings and other events that do not depend on walk-ins. She encouraged people not to wait until construction is complete to patronize her shop.

"Not only can no cars get to our business, but it is too dangerous to walk," Fowler said. "Residents need to know that we need their help and they need to come down. Not just when it is finished and looking pretty, but we need the support now."

Le Reve Restaurant manager Mitchell Jackson said the most difficult impact for their business is the unknown regarding staffing from day to day. On a given day the variance in the amount of patrons can leave him under- or over-staffed, which can negatively affect the long term. But Jackson said the positive results from the rebuild far outweigh the short term negatives, saying he's pleased that the Village Improvement District is doing what it can to help out until work is completed.

"As a business it is important to stay united as a community," Jackson said. "That gets people involved that have been too afraid to come down here."

City studies conducted to minimize effects

The City of Wauwatosa and those involved in the project knew in advance the effect that this construction would have on the businesses. As early as the beginning of the decade, Mayor Kathy Ehley and other city officials began discussing how best to approach the murky waters that the businesses would be going through. The project was originally slated to get underway in 2011, but after discussion with the Department of Transportation, it was put on hold due to the Zoo Interchange reconstruction. In addition, the city consulted with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee city planning students during the planning stages.

"We are well aware of the stresses that any construction project places on businesses," Ehley said. "There has been a lot of thought put into this process. We spent many years attempting to build up customer loyalty and started thinking about what the businesses would need in 2011."

Usually in these types of developments, the construction part comes first and the businesses move in after the infrastructure is in place. In this instance, businesses moved in and began to create a vibrant area that quickly increased the need for additional sewer and water, parking and traffic controls.

"There has been an enormous amount of private investment here in the last 10 to 15 years that nobody saw coming," Plaisted said. "It just happened organically. We are doing the public infrastructure last, so it completes the picture. There is still some private investment that is going to happen around this space."

Additional efforts have been implemented by the district since construction began, such as creating a website to communicate parking lot closings and construction updates and utilizing social media to keep everyone informed.

Residents walk the village

The Sneak-a-Peek event brought people like local resident Tim Stein who signed up and was given a pedometer to measure his steps and a list of participating businesses that he was asked to visit. The effort Stein made could be turned in and redeemed for raffle tickets to win prizes from the businesses.

"It should be fun to check out the merchandise and restaurants," Stein said. "I probably haven't been to the businesses as much as I normally would, but it's a work in progress and once it's done it will be fabulous."

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