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Employed is a weekly reporting series focused on the new Northwoods.The landscape of living, playing, and working in the Northwoods is changing. Where we work, where we shop, where we reside, and how we support our families looks different than it did even a decade ago. It continues to shift as industry, tourism, retail, services, and natural resources shift.Entrepreneurship, broadband, work-from-home, and COVID-19 are all part of that mix. What makes you wonder, or what story ideas do you have for Employed? Submit them below.

A New Streetscape and New Businesses on 5th: Antigo Seeks to Revive Downtown

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Ben Meyer/WXPR
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A florist cuts lush, green stems to the proper bouquet length in a well-lit work area.

Nearby, her coworker snips sharp thorns off of a rose about to go into an arrangement.

At the same time, Josh Jameson takes yet another phone call, chatting easily with a customer.

Jameson manages Flowers from the Heart on 5th, situated on 5th Avenue in the center of Antigo’s downtown.

Last year, the flower shop opened downtown and then moved to this new, bigger space next door just three weeks ago.

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The flower cooler in the new location has the capacity to hold hundreds or thousands of flowers ready to be arranged.

“I guess the big thing is, when you walk in from the outside, we want to take you someplace,” Jameson says.

The rustic décor, local products, and fresh flowers accomplish their mission.

“We doubled the size of our cooler. That’s huge,” Jameson says. “if you look at this [cooler], it’s really hard to describe, but it’s flowers floor to ceiling.”

They need the inventory, Jameson says, to keep up with demand.

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Josh Jameson is the manager of Flowers from the Heart on 5th.

Many Northwoods communities like Antigo share at least one thing in common: downtowns that have seen better days.

The vibrancy of shoppers, visitors, and department stores have given way to empty storefronts.

Antigo’s downtown, for one, reached its peak years ago.

But the city is envisioning a new peak in the near future, in part thanks to downtown businesses like Flowers from the Heart on 5th, which has operated in Crandon for 35 and just expanded to Antigo.

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The Hoffman House first opened in 1884 in downtown Antigo, but the historic bar and restaurant hasn't served a meal since 1992. That will change this year after a renovation project.

A few blocks down 5th Avenue, past some occupied storefronts and some vacant ones, stepping into Hix’s Hoffman House is like stepping into an upscale, Victorian-style bar and restaurant from the 1910s.

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The bar inside Hix's Hoffman House on 5th Avenue.

The Hoffman House was built as a restaurant and hotel in 1884 but served its last guest nearly 30 years ago.

That is, until it reopens this year. Already, says owner Tina Hix, she’s taken 14 dinner reservations. The completed dining room doesn’t even exist yet.

“[We’ve had] overwhelming support from Antigo when the word came out on this. I’m just blown away by it,” says Tina’s husband, Rod Hix.

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Rod and Tina Hix.

The Hixes just bought the property, seeking to fix it up, restore it, and welcome diners again.

The project fits neatly into the narrative of Antigo’s downtown, itself seeking to restore past vitality.

“I am,” says Rod Hix, when asked if he’s optimistic about the downtown. “I have a lot of naysayers, who say, oh, boy, what a waste of time. Why’d Antigo waste money on that street, this, that, and the other thing? But it’s progress, I guess. We can live in the past or bring the past to the future.”

Finished renovations should allow the restaurant to open this summer.

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Credit Langlade County Historical Society
A historic look west down 5th Avenue in Antigo.

A strong downtown is more than a luxury, says Gordy Neve, the president of Antigo First, a group of active downtown business owners.

The downtown sets the course and character for the whole community.

“Everybody’s roots are in their downtown. That’s how this city has evolved into what it is now,” Neve says.

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The 5th-Avenue view of Antigo's reworked downtown. The streetscape project included a new road, more parking, benches, and flower planters.

By the end of this year, Antigo will have invested more than $6 million in a two-phase project to replace the infrastructure below 5th Avenue and revitalize its streetscape on the surface. The latter part of the project includes benches, flower planters, and more parking.

The Langlade County Economic Development Corporation is also encouraging entrepreneurs to open downtown through a grant program, says Angie Close, the agency’s executive director.

“Bringing more people in our downtown is a way of bringing more residents to our area, meaning our school districts will have more teachers. Our hospitals, our places of work will have more workers because I believe it does start in our downtown,” she says.

Neve and Close agree.

Goal number one is filling those remaining vacant storefronts to provide a more welcoming and comfortable downtown.

“We know that empty buildings are just not aesthetically nice as far as coming through,” says Close.

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Teenagers play virtual reality games at Funtime Antigo on 5th Avenue.

The good news for Antigo, according to one downtown merchant, is that a new business seems to be opening every month.

On the same 5th Avenue block as the Hoffman House, Funtime Antigo has opened and expanded within the last year.

The facility has virtual reality gaming, card game leagues, and even a small, indoor skate park.

It targets teens who aren’t into mainstream sports or traditional school activities.

“They just need a space to get together and get to know their peers and like-minded individuals,” says owner Cecil DeHart.

DeHart grew up in Antigo and says businesses like his are helping a distressed downtown come back to life.

“I used joke that there were so many antique stores in town, and secondhand stores, it was becoming Antique-go. I’m like, we don’t need more of that. We need something new, something fresh, something that can appeal to the young people and kind of get them to stick around and work to making our community a better place,” DeHart says.

The overhaul is moving the downtown in the right direction, says Gordy Neve of Antigo First.

“If it continues, people are going want to be down there. Then, we can get the candy shop, the ice cream shop, those kind of things,” Neve says. “On a weekend, maybe some of the people stay in town. Right now, a lot of people with money in Antigo have lake homes.”

At Flowers from the Heart of 5th, Josh Jameson has a similar vision.

In fact, he even has another downtown in mind as a model for what Antigo could be.

“I look at different places. You go up to Minocqua and you see what their downtown is, all of the small specialty shops. That’s not something that can just happen in Minocqua. That can happen all over northern Wisconsin. As long as it’s different types of shops and different things, it can work,” says Jameson. “That’s what we’re doing here.”

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The entrance to Flowers from the Heart on 5th.

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