Empty streets in downtown Sharon
Editor's note: Saving Downtown is an award-winning series by freelance writer Lisa Schmelz exploring how Walworth County communities are breathing new life into their historic downtown districts. This is the fifth installment.
Visit other towns in the Saving Downtown series by going online to communityshoppers.com/tag/Saving-downtown.
SHARON — On a recent Sunday afternoon, the streets of historic Sharon were eerily quiet. There were very few cars, very few people and many vacant storefronts in this rural village on the Wisconsin-Illinois stateline. Don Weig, 82, owns three of those empty buildings in what appears more Hollywood set than a place of commerce.
“The downtown itself is pretty much a ghost town, with the exception of the restaurant, the bank, the gun shop and the telephone company,” Weig said. “It's not what it used to be.”
What it used to be, when Weig moved here in 1959 to assume co-ownership of the telephone company, was a whole lot more. Once upon a time, this hamlet had a grocery store, a hardware store and even a bowling alley. Sprinkled in were restaurants, mom-and-pop retail shops and business offices. Like most aging downtown districts across the country, Sharon hasn't fared well in the strip-malling of America. But compared to other communities in Walworth County, Sharon's fate is particularly distressing and vacancy rates here are above 70 percent — the highest found so far in the Saving Downtown series. (See link to Saving Downtown series in box above right.)
What makes it harder for Main Street to survive in Sharon than elsewhere? Linda DiPiero, president of the Sharon Chamber of Commerce, used to operate a coffee shop here and believes a lot more than a single business was lost when the grocery store went up in flames.
“Would you come here?” she asked. “What killed the town was when the grocery store burned down. The grocery store brought people downtown.
“I think at one time it was 2,400 square feet. It drew people from Capron and the Illinois stateline. It wasn't big, but it brought people from other small places here.”
The fire that took the downtown grocer, DiPiero added, was in 2006. Nine years later, downtown Sharon is more closed than open. Used a half dozen times throughout the year for outdoor events like Victorian Christmas and Model A Days, it's a wonderful backdrop. But that's about all.
If you were to drive through downtown Sharon, it's possible you'd smile. The multistory brick buildings invoke a bygone era. The seasonal trimmings on the vintage-style street lamps, which local residents sponsor, can warm the heart on a cold winter's night. However, the outsides of downtown Sharon do not match the insides. Peer past the windows, many of which are decorated with historical pieces, and you'll either see absolutely nothing or boxes piled high. In one storefront, a heavy padlock hangs from the door. Inside, a '90s-era computer sits on a desk, covered in a thick layer of dust.
DiPiero said there's no strategic plan in the works to turn things around. Yet that's exactly what Bill Ryan, a community business development specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension for the last 20 years, believes is needed.
“We feel it's very important to have the downtown stakeholders involved rather than individual businesses just going it alone,” Ryan said. “There's a domino effect when you do that.”
Ryan isn't just another state bureaucrat. He's an expert on how downtown districts like Sharon can find a new purpose. Though the obstacles facing off-the-beaten-path communities like Sharon, which has just 1,605 people, are more challenging, Ryan still has hope.
Offering empty storefronts to nonprofits, he said, could be a start. He's seen communities, large and small, start resuscitation by allowing local schools set up specialty shops or art galleries. Storefronts that offer shared office space for companies of one to five employees are also a way to fill up what was once empty.
“The heart of their town sends a signal that says we're either in business or we're not,” Ryan said.
Just one unusual tenant, he added, can have a catalyst effect. He recalled an East Coast community that combated vacancy when a piano restoration company — which didn't rely on traditional retail foot traffic — moved into a building. Passers-by had something interesting to take notice of, and the presence of one business making a very successful go of it inspired more of the same. In Princeton, Wisconsin, Ryan said, four businesses recently banded together to make the town of 1,200 a destination, improving downtown occupancy rates.
“It may not be a huge generator of traffic, but it shows something is going on, something that's unique, and that can lead to more mixed use,” he said. “(Historic downtowns) are not a retail center anymore. There has to be more.”
More is in short supply in Sharon. The only activity on this Sunday afternoon is coming from the Coffee Cup Cafe. Outside, Kathee Thumm is getting ready to get in her car and head home. She lives across the stateline in Rockford and started attending St. Catherine in Sharon a few years ago. Most Sundays, she follows Mass with a bite to eat at Sharon's only cafe. When asked what she thinks the future holds for downtown Sharon, she paused and stared up and down the empty streets before answering.
“I'm really kind of ashamed of myself,” Thumm said, shaking her head. “I've never really thought of that. I've just always assumed it was going to be here.”