Eagle River bounces back stronger after pandemic set-backs
Even going back just a few years ago, your image of a downtown area in any given Northwoods city might be more empty storefronts than filled ones, a lack of people walking the sidewalks, or maybe even just a place for tourists.
But that image has slowly been changing, especially in Eagle River where more than two dozen new businesses have opened up shop in the last two years.
On a sunny, summer early Friday afternoon Eagle River is already bustling. People roam the sidewalks popping into different shops or grabbing lunch at a table outside.
Not even heavy construction on 70 to the west of downtown can seem to be keep people away.
One of the storefronts you’ll see along 70 as you come into town from that direction is Eagle Bikes. The electric bike rental business opened two years ago in June 2020.
“We actually did open the business. We had good results from the start,” said Mike Swisher.
“We rented into September, right? Or maybe in early October because it was busy,” added his wife, Kim.
Mike and Kim decided to get into the e-bike business after trying and enjoying the bikes themselves. Mike decided to start out with four bikes to see how it would go.
“We actually had more demand than I thought. So in the meantime we purchased some more bikes. That got us up to six and now we’re up to 10,” he said.
People will typically rent the bikes and ride them down the Three Eagles Trail to Three Lakes and back since the trailhead is just a couple blocks from the shop.
Opening the rental business in Eagle River made sense to the pair since Kim already had her communications business there.
Not to mention the sheer number of people the visit area, especially in the last couple of years.
“I’ve seen a definite growth last year over the year before and the year before that just being here,” said Kim.
It’s not just the number of visitors and residents increasing, but the number of businesses as well.
In the last two years, Eagle Bikes has been one of 31 new businesses to open, expand, or change ownership in Eagle River.
“We’re excited things are flourishing. There’s a dog shop downtown. I mean, anyone that knows me and Mike knows Bobby’s always with us and we can take her to the dog shop. They just opened this year,” said Kim referring to her old dog that comes to the shop with her. “It’s nice to have those kinds of places in town are that are touristy, but are also for locals that are here all year.”
Watching it grow
The growth has been a welcome site for Tom Stephens who opened The Hiker Box downtown with his wife Jessica Allen in 2014.
“[It is] our dream of having hiking store right where we fell in love with hiking,” he said.
Back when they first opened, Tom says the downtown area wasn’t all too inviting, but you wouldn’t guess that looking at it now.
“When we first moved in, frankly, it felt a lot more bleak than it does at this time. There were a lot of empty storefronts. That has changed,” said Tom. “We don’t have many empty storefronts. There are not many opportunities to shoulder your way into a space in the downtown anymore. That’s a big change from just eight years ago where people were practically begging you, ‘Look at my space’ when there were lots of empty ones.”
Business has been so good in recent years that The Hiker Box is ready to expand.
Tom and Jessica recently snatched up one of the remaining empty storefronts.
“We plan to actually have two locations. We’re going to kind of split up our categories cause we love our current location. It’s great for foot traffic. We just couldn't see ourselves wanting to move out here,” said Tom. “We’re going to put one part of the business over there. One part of the business over here and just make more things available to all those customers that keep coming to see us.”
One of the things Tom attributes the city’s success to is the Eagle River Revitalization Program.
“It has really helped put some oomph into filling in these storefronts,” he said.
Karen Margelofsky took over as Executive Director of the program last August, but has been living in Eagle River since 2007 and has seen the change herself.
“Eagle River has really just been on fire lately,” she said.
While the program has been a resource for businesses since the lates 90s, Margelofsky attributes much of the new business success to the pandemic.
A flood of federal dollars has helped support small businesses.
There’s the Main Street Bounceback Program Governor Evers Office created using federal pandemic relief money to grant $10,000 to businesses that move into empty downtown store fronts, a program that’s just been extended until the end of this year.
“I think [they have] a million more dollars to spend. I’m hoping to get a lot of that into our city for people to start their ideas,” said Margelofsky. “It’s a great grant that I think has really boosted our local economy here. I think I’m up to at least 20 business that have received that grant.”
Margelofksy also believes the pandemic motivated people to take a leap that they might not have before.
“People just really want to be in the Northwoods. They’re bringing their hearts and desires in opening businesses up here so that they can live and work in the most beautiful place,” she said.
Now the question becomes will it last?
Tom at Hiker Box is hopeful.
“People have come to realize that a vibrant downtown is valuable to a community,” he said.
And if you haven’t visited your downtown lately, Tom says now is the perfect time to change that.
“There’s a surprising variety in many downtowns. The way that our downtown got and is staying full with the shops is the customers. It’s the local people that live here and shop year that really make our downtown vibrant,” Tom said.