With a complete reconstruction of two of Superior’s busiest thoroughfares (Tower Ave. and Belknap St.), new amenities for both tourists and residents and a surge of new businesses, Superior is experiencing growth unmatched in decades.
Chalk it up to the city’s youthful leadership, a healthy business climate, Wisconsin’s favorable tax implications and novice business owners vibing on the community’s current wave of positivity.
Superior’s current leadership is quick to dismiss the notion that youth and energy have much to do with it, but acknowledge the transformation is an energetic one.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, who is 37 and was elected at age 35, took over when the elder Bruce Hagen stepped down to focus on his health. Superior Business Improvement District (SBID) Executive Director, Lindsey Jacobson, is just 40. She is vocal about her respect for the path laid by Kaye Tenerelli, who held the role for 28 years before she took over. And Taylor Pedersen, 35, is the current President/CEO of the Superior-Douglas County Chamber of Commerce. Pedersen stepped in when David Minor, a lifelong Superiorite, left to take a role as president and CEO of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.
While the three have clearly taken the ball and run with it, they all maintain a healthy respect and deference to those who came before them and hesitate to take too much credit for Superior’s recent successes.
Nevertheless, many millions of dollars have been invested in Superior’s infrastructure in recent years. Planning for the massive Tower Ave. reconstruction project began in 2008 at the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council. According to Paine, funding for the project was covered mostly by the Department of Transportation, but Superior paid for, and did, much of the planning for many of the aesthetics.
“The DOT was rebuilding the street, and left to their own devices Tower Avenue would have been rebuilt exactly the same way,” he said. But those familiar with Superior recognize the new avenue boasts plenty of improvements over the old.
Medians and curb bump-outs were added. Historic lighting was installed. There is additional, attractive vegetation and seating, and the street was made more pedestrian and bike friendly. The project wrapped up in 2014.
Belknap Street is currently undergoing a similar revitalization, set to be fully complete in June 2019. Storm sewer infrastructure was added. Water mains were replaced. New sidewalks have been constructed to include uniform slopes to meet current ADA standards and left turn lanes and bus pullouts were added as additional safety measures.
With the renovations wrapping up, new businesses are flocking to both corridors, Paine noted. He said businesses want to be in close proximity to the beautiful new streetscape and each section of town now has its own unique vibe.
Paine, Pedersen, and Jacobson alike tend to use the term “placemaking,” which is the current buzzword used to explain the multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. They like to think of it as a kind of “if you build it, they will come” mentality.
“Think of it this way,” Pedersen said. “New York has Little China Town and the Central Park area. Madison has Capitol Hill. There’s lots of different flavor in all these different sections.”
And, that’s one of Superior’s goals for its neighborhoods. There is one thing for certain: North Tower Ave. is no longer just a bar district. It is a vibrant place to do your holiday shopping, grab a casual bite to eat or visit an insurance agent. Today you can browse the eclectic shops, have a cup of coffee, or even rent an upscale apartment. The image associated with the neighborhood has changed, which is rapidly attracting business owners and residents.
There are toy, comic and game stores, including Level Up and Games Then and Now. Twisted Pastries and Empire Coffee are serving up fresh baked goods and hot coffee. Sweeden Sweets is a new candy store. And, you can now grab a burger at 7 West Taphouse or a beer at Earth Rider Brewery. Blue Arrow Boutique is also on the avenue.
When it comes to the service industry, Nicolet Law and DC Testing are both housed on north Tower Ave. The Empire Block, a renovated historical block at 1204 Tower Ave. boasts luxury, upscale apartments.
Field & Connelly Insurance has a completely refurbished exterior, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Douglas County government offices have new signage.
“Many existing property owners are investing in their storefronts and the pride people are taking in their businesses is really important,” Jacobson said.
While several of Superior’s big box stores, such as Target, Kmart and Younkers have closed, the city’s leadership welcomes the transition and is grateful for the movement toward small business.
“We were not succeeding with the big box stores,” Paine said. “They were destroying small businesses and not good for the city of Superior.”
Pedersen said he, too, is grateful for many of the locally owned, long-term businesses that have stuck it out in Superior, even when things weren’t booming. “It’s fun to see development and new businesses going up, but it’s important to pay homage to our tenured businesses, too. Places like VIP Pizza, Shamrock Pizza and Northwest Outlet. It’s exciting to have a balance of new and old.”
Rick Lampton is a partner in 7 West Taphouse, which serves burgers and beer on both sides of the bridge, with two locations in Duluth and a new one on north Tower Ave. in Superior. He said the recent updates to Superior’s streetscape and infrastructure and also the friendly business climate were a big part of wanting to get in on the action.
“I’ve lived in Superior since 1994, and for a long time, it (north Tower Ave.) was all bars,” Lampton said. “No one was willing to put money into their establishments. After the Tower Avenue reconstruction, the street is much more appealing. Traffic has increased, and it has been a good fit for 7 West. Plus, it’s a lot less expensive for a business to operate in Superior,” he said, referencing Wisconsin’s manufacturer’s tax credit and lower overall tax rate.
In addition to all the businesses booming in the city, there are new amenities keeping residents happy while also increasing the city’s tourism numbers. An example would be the fact that Superior has become a lot more cyclist friendly, having recently joined forces with the Zagster bike-share program. Cyclists can borrow a bike from one of the four bike stations and bike to work or for pleasure. A bike repair station was also installed at Center City Park.
Many of Superior’s natural spaces are also being renovated, allowing better ease of use while remaining sensitive to the natural habitat. Barker’s Island will soon be restored to become more environmentally friendly and increase access for users.
Wisconsin Point will undergo a sand dune restoration, allowing better public access, improving protection of the sensitive dunes and historical sites. There will also be the installation of boardwalks, and the Allouez Bay shoreline will be stabilized. There is also a new dog park, city parks are being updated to include restrooms and covered play spaces and the city is taking strides to expand current connections to ATV and UTV trails.
Paine believes these updates are great for visitors, but especially beneficial for residents. “We want to make it friendlier for people who live in Superior, not just those passing through.”
Pedersen echoes this thought. “The more we offer to our residents, the better their quality of life.”
While it is important for a community to put its residents first, one cannot deny the power that some of these increased businesses and amenities, along with events such as the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival, have had on Douglas County tourism numbers. “Last year was a record-breaking tourism year for us,” Pedersen said. “Direct visitor spending totaled $94.5 million. Out of the 72 counties in Wisconsin, Douglas County had the 31st highest impact from tourism in 2017.”
While Superior is making huge strides, the work is far from over. Pedersen shared that his ultimate goal as CEO and president of the Chamber involves increased enjoyment of the water. “I’d like to see Superior do a better job of utilizing the water,” he said. We don’t really have meeting places or restaurants on the water.”
The continued success of Superior’s renaissance is contingent on keeping the good vibes flowing. “My hope is for the continuation of positive attitudes about the Superior community,” Jacobson said.
Above all, it’s important to note that while Superior relishes its current success, the city isn’t trying to be something it’s not.
“We want to make sure businesses and manufacturers can grow, but we aren’t trying to become a great metropolis,” Paine said.