For the Mount Horeb's sixth annual Scandihoovian Winter Festival, residents will don traditional Scandinavian nisse and tomte, pointy red hats, and participate in a spate of winter activities including snowshoeing, skiing, sleigh rides and the ever-popular frozen turkey bowling.
The activities are spread around Mount Horeb, but visitors to downtown will notice changes. The village is in the middle of a major transformation representing tens of millions of dollars of private investment.
“There’s just been such a momentum of the community realizing that this asset of a beautiful downtown is really important,” said Carol McChesney Johnson, new executive director of the Mount Horeb Area Economic Development Corporation.
A new bicycle shop, cafe and a retail store have popped up along the main thoroughfare. The Mount Horeb Innovation Center took over an old bank in 2014. An expanded and revamped museum will open in the spring. A major company headquarters and a luxury apartment building are in the works, and a food emporium will soon be on the scene.
A local volunteer organization helped make these and other downtown development projects a reality.
The recession hit Mount Horeb pretty hard, and it’s seen slow growth since then, said Brad Murphy, the former executive director of the Mount Horeb Area Economic Development Corporation. Antique stores used to be a big deal downtown, but have fallen out of favor, Murphy said. There were vacant buildings and buildings in need of updates and facelifts.
In 2012, about a dozen individuals decided to take it upon themselves to get the ball rolling for downtown revitalization. They formed their own volunteer, nonprofit economic development group: the Mount Horeb Area Economic Development Corporation (known as the EDC).
“Their role has been tremendous, quite frankly,” said Randy Littel, village president of Mount Horeb. “Through the chamber we’ve had various committees and so on, but the EDC really has taken the lead to get business in here to really just spur development.”
The EDC's first major contribution didn’t actually take place downtown, Murphy said. Members started looking for investors to build a hotel, an effort that the village had been attempting for nearly three decades. Six months later, the EDC had found local investors to fund the $6 million GrandStay Hotel and Suites Mount Horeb, now open on Lillehammer Lane.
The hotel changed Mount Horeb from a day-trip destination into a weekend getaway, said Dave Hoffman, chair of the Downtown Revitalization Committee at the EDC.
In 2015, the EDC formed a downtown study committee to look at how other cities were surviving and building budding downtowns. They were especially interested Sun Prairie’s Cannery Square mixed-use development that had been funded by a Tax Incremental District. It led the committee to consider a TID of their own.
“If we’re going to ask people to invest in properties downtown, the village would necessarily have to make an investment as well,” Hoffman said.
The village was willing, and implemented Tax Increment Financing in August 2016.
Property owners downtown were also willing. When the EDC met with them to discuss potential development, they were met with enthusiasm.
“What the property owners said was, ‘This is great, no one’s ever talked to us before as a group, we’d like more of this,’” Hoffman said.
New businesses started popping up in 2016. The former Dick’s Meats turned into the Sunn Cafe, Madison’s Trail This Bicycle Shop started a second store in Mount Horeb and there’s a new retail store on Main Street called “McFee on Main.” The EDC helped them along.
Lynn Riviere McFee and her husband, owners of McFee on Main, got a matching grant from the EDC to hire a business coach and write a business plan. They opened their store last October and they’re having a blast, McFee said.
What’s happened since is what Hoffman calls a “positive domino effect.”
“The community has a really good feel right now, there’s a lot of energy,” McFee said. “You can feel the underswell of things happening.”
The Mount Horeb Historical Society is investing $1.7 million to remodel and expand its museum on Second Street under the new moniker “Driftless Historium.” (Driftless refers to the southwest area of Wisconsin, known for deep river valleys.)
Right across from the Driftless Historium, Duluth Trading Company will likely be breaking ground in 2018 to build a five-story, 108,000-square-foot office for its new headquarters.
A property that was previously the site of a John Deere dealership half a block off the main street is slated to become a restaurant and banquet hall, and the downtown may soon get its first four-story building in the form of a 30-unit deluxe Gallina Companies apartment complex slated for 111 S. First St.
In March, renovation will begin on Zalucha Studio to turn it into the Mount Horeb Artisan Food Emporium, which will have shared food processing equipment, retail and a cafe. Murphy hopes that foodies will be populating the building by July.
If you look at the development that’s happened since the EDC was formed through to the development that’s likely to take place this year, you’re looking at about $50 million worth of investment, Murphy said.
It’s all happened quickly, surprising even those at EDC.
“Frankly, I’ve been surprised (at the pace),” Hoffman said. “There’s been a perfect storm of us communicating, willing property owners and a village that’s willing to come behind it and help private investment.”
He gives credit to the EDC, a unique village organization that’s focused solely on economic development. Many times, economic development falls to the village administrator, who has many other responsibilities, he said.
“A lot of this I’m convinced is constant, persistent, everyday attention to some form of economic development,” he said.
Nick Owen, the village administrator of Mount Horeb, said the EDC was key.
“The EDC played a pretty big part getting it rolling,” Owen said. “We have a lot of dedicated, interested individuals here in Mount Horeb.”
Murphy also commends the community itself.
“What happens is you get some momentum and people come out of the woodwork. They say, ‘I’ve been thinking about this and it feels like the right time,'” he said.
With all the new development, the village is careful to maintain the historic character of the neighborhood.
“We don’t just want to scrape and replace,” Murphy said. “We want to keep the historical nature of those buildings where that’s possible.”
Today, the EDC is still working on downtown development, but it’s also looking into the east and north sides of Mount Horeb. It has workforce development and outreach committees, with over 50 total members.
“Theses are all people that just love Mount Horeb and want to contribute,” Murphy said.