If you've lived in Madison for more than 20 years or so, you may remember when the east-side neighborhood surrounding Winnebago Street and Atwood Avenue had a pretty seedy reputation. The neighborhood cinema, a 1928 Italian Renaissance-style movie palace equipped with a Kilgen theater organ, had become a disreputable porn house. Like much of the surrounding neighborhood, it had fallen into disrepair. Many Madisonians considered the area a crime magnet.
"When I was growing up, this neighborhood had a terrible rap," says Meghan Blake-Horst of Absolutely Art, an Atwood Avenue gallery and gift shop. Her childhood home was just a few blocks away, and she's raising her own family in the neighborhood.
"When I went to UW-Eau Claire and told people that I went to Madison East, they'd say, 'Eeeew! Are you safe to know?'" While there were some rough edges to the neighborhood, she says she always felt safe growing up there.
Blake-Horst says the 1980s transformation of the porn house into the Barrymore Theatre and the opening of Monty's Blue Plate Diner across the street in what had been a gas station sparked a rebirth of the neighborhood and its retail and restaurant scene.
Today, the area is an eclectic mix of established businesses like the Ohio Tavern, Martin Glass and Harmony Bar and Grill and more recent arrivals like Daisy Cafe, the pet store Bad Dog Frida and Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier. Blake-Horst believes a strong business association would make the retail and restaurant district even more popular, and she's working with other area business owners to create one.
Blake-Horst has been talking up a business association since Absolutely Art opened in 2005. But the move to create the Winnebago & Atwood Business Association has been picking up steam in the past year, in part due to the city's plans to reconstruct both Winnebago Street, from the Yahara River to Atwood Avenue, in 2015; and Atwood Avenue, from Winnebago to the Starkweather Creek, in 2016 and 2017. Organizers hope that, by working together, they can minimize the disruption to local businesses while the streets are under construction.
"We've seen how effective the Greater Williamson Area Business Association has been in addressing concerns, keeping folks in the neighborhood informed about things like water shutoffs, and creating marketing and signage to help customers [navigate the construction zone]," says Adam Chern, who has been active in promoting a business association. "We realize we should be doing the same thing here." Chern is a co-owner of a property management company, Accipiter Properties, and a solar hot water business, Resource Solar.
"The 'Willy Lives' effort has been really effective," Blake-Horst adds. "They were able to get funding to hire a project manager who serves as a conduit between the businesses and the city. They've been savvy about using websites and social media to keep customers informed. We have invited representatives from Willy Street to our meetings to tell us how they've done it."
But Blake-Horst and others believe a strong business association will have many other advantages for the retail and restaurant district both before and after the street reconstructions.
"A lot of us are informal ambassadors for the area," Chern says. "If we know each other better we can be more effective at that."
Blake-Horst agrees: "There are a lot of awesome things going on, but also a lot of disconnect. If we know each other better and work as a collective whole, we can refer our customers to nearby restaurants or tell them where to find something else they might be looking for."
Studio Paran, for example, flies under the radar, says Blake-Horst. Glass artist Richard Jones, who has a working studio and a small shop in a building tucked away off Winnebago Street, is not widely known in Madison, but his work is sold in some of the finest museum shops in the country.
She says some of the business owners themselves may not be aware of what she calls "the hidden treasures" in the area - the accountant who works out of an office on the second floor of a retail business or the web designer who works from a home office.
A business association also would provide local business people with a collective voice in negotiations with city government, Blake-Horst adds. And it could be a clearinghouse for information about services and programs such as the city's facade improvement grant program.
Victor Downey, who opened the Victory, a coffee shop on Atwood Avenue, in August 2010, thinks the business association is a good idea.
"When I moved here from Brooklyn, I considered opening my shop on the Square, but I really liked the idea of being part of a neighborhood like this one," he says. "The other businesses have been very supportive, and I definitely plan to get [more] involved."
Currently, the shape the business association will assume is uncertain. Blake-Horst, Chern and the 50-some businesses that have been represented at the monthly organizational meetings are considering whether they will form a new organization or merge with the Schenk Atwood Revitalization Association, which was formed about a decade ago but has not been active recently.
Blake-Horst says the neighborhood has a lot going for it.
"We have $1 million houses and $150,000 houses here," she says. "It's a very walkable neighborhood. We have the lake just a few blocks away, a great bike path and community gardens."
Because of its diversity, she says the neighbors include everyone from doctors and lawyers to construction workers and artists. And there are lots of artists - 30 of the 63 businesses participating in the last citywide Gallery Night are located in this compact part of town.
"We've seen many positive changes," says Carmen Alcalde, who opened Bad Dog Frida next to the Barrymore Theatre in 2006. "You can get groceries, dog supplies, chocolates, clothing and go to a live music venue. It makes it feel like you don't need to leave this area."
Closer collaboration in the business community will only make the area stronger economically, Blake-Horst says. "If we work together, we can take on projects we could never do individually."