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Filling in Vacant Storefronts: Main Street Bounceback program supports small businesses in every Wisconsin county

Kim Norkunas and Eva and Bill Bruce meet with Governor Tony Evers. Their businesses in Iron County were the latest to receive grants from the Main Street Bounceback program.
Katie Thoresen
Kim Norkunas and Eva and Bill Bruce meet with Governor Tony Evers. Their businesses in Iron County were the latest to receive grants from the Main Street Bounceback program.

As you drive north on Highway 51 through the town of Mercer, you may skip over the old building on your left across from the Krist Gas Station.

At first glance, there’s not much to the worn brick and faded brown paint façade.

But inside a transformation is underway.

Kim Norkunas and her husband Chip are renting out the space and renovating it to fit their vision.

“You have a vision. You gut everything. You’re like, ‘I see it.’ But other people are looking like, ‘Are you sure?’” said Kim.

The space has been pizza place and an antique shop. It’s most famous for its rumors of being a bar once frequented by Al Capone.

Now it will be home to Aurora Up North and Gunney SunShine’s PX.

“Originally it was when he retired, cause I’m already a retired marine, he was like maybe I can come to do handyman or maybe start getting wood flooring,” said Kim referring to her husband.

Aurora Up North is Chip’s hardwood and cabinetry business, Gunney SunShine’s PX is Kim’s accessory and furniture store.

While the couple is from Minnesota, they chose Mercer because of Kim’s connection to the area through her late husband.

“Everybody’s been warm, welcoming and encouraging, and giving us advice,” said Kim.

Their business is one of more than 3,400 in the state to receive a $10,000 Main Street Bounceback grant.

Governor Evers’ administration has used $50 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund small businesses through the Main Street Bounceback program. It helps small businesses move into vacant storefronts.

“It’s been able to help us almost double our investment. We had some money set aside to invest and making some upgrades. Now we can do twice as much,” said Chip.

Aurora Up North in Mercer and The North Pole Bar in Hurley were the two most recent recipients of the Main Street Bounceback grants.

With these two, the grants have now gone to businesses in every Wisconsin county.

Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation CEO Missy Hughes and Governor Tony Evers visited the Mercer Thursday to meet the business owners.

Evers says the program is helping local economies recover by supporting small businesses and bringing a boost to already established businesses in downtowns.

“We want to make sure we not only recover but that we actually end up better than we did before we had that pandemic,” said Evers.

Hughes says it’s not just a boost for the business that receives the grant.

“You can imagine being a small business owner. You’ve made it through the pandemic, but you’ve got an empty space on each side of you. We want to fill those spaces so that when folks are driving through town they stop, they’ve got a bunch of different stores to go to and to eat and shop at and just really support the local community,” said Hughes.

While both Hughes and Evers say it’s great way to help local businesses recover from the pandemic, they recognize many still face challenges.

Chief among them is the worker shortage. Evers says it’s not enough to just try and bring people into the state.

“If people can’t afford childcare, then they can’t afford to go to work in a local store. We have to make sure that our roads and our infrastructure is good, housing is affordable. All those things play a role in making sure we have enough people to work,” said Evers.

Hiring workers is still a ways off in Kim and Chip’s plans as they finish up renovations.

With every project accomplished, they get more excited to be part of Mercer’s pandemic bounceback story.

“We’re trying to fill a niche that wasn’t fulfilled here,” said Kim.

The pair hope to have the business open in time for busy summer tourism season.

The Main Street Bounceback grants program is still accepting applications.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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