New downtown Waukesha organization wants to put the clamps on rebranding

Published on: 12/30/2013

Hiring a marketing firm to rebrand downtown Waukesha was on the city's radar throughout the last month.

But after it got pushed off Common Council agendas twice in December, a new downtown organization hopes that extra time will prevent the rebranding effort from even happening — at least right now.

"We feel that the cart was put before the horse," said Jeff Barta, chairman of the newly formed Downtown Property Alliance. "It's premature."

The Common Council was first scheduled to discuss and approve a contract for $15,000 for the Milwaukee-based marketing firm, Savage Solutions, at its Dec. 3 meeting.

It was moved to the Dec. 17 agenda but just hours before the meeting, City Administrator Ed Henschel removed it from the agenda.

In an email to Common Council members, Mayor Jeff Scrima, Community Development Director Steve Crandell and Barta, Henschel said that "due to a variety of other issues I have been focused on, I have not had a chance to review the Savage contract and discuss the rebranding of the city with the Community Development Department.

"There are a number of questions I feel need to be addressed before moving forward."

Henschel said the item is now scheduled for Tuesday's Common Council meeting at City Hall, 201 Delafield St. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m.

Barta was included on the email because of his recent feedback to Henschel and other city officials on rebranding.

Barta, who has owned Nice Ash Cigar Bar in downtown Waukesha with his wife, Joette, since 2006, sent city officials results from a survey that was conducted by the DPA, a private organization.

A new outlet

In the email and in a later interview, Barta said the group was created "to represent the property owner's interests in downtown Waukesha."

He said after the downtown Business Improvement District, which included property owners, disbanded they didn't have an outlet. The BID was disbanded at the request of a majority of the property owners because they felt their voices weren't being heard when new BID leadership was elected earlier this year.

"We are in the early stages of the organization with the intent of filling some of the needs no longer being met downtown with the dissolution of the Business Improvement District," Barta said.

The BID was a taxing district in downtown and helped in marketing, recruiting and retaining businesses and property maintenance. Barta said property owners held a few meetings in October and November to establish a foundation. The DPA is led by a four-person committee — Barta, Ken Miller of Kendal Lofts, former Waukesha Mayor Paul Vrakas and Jimmy Dakolias of Boscos Social Club.

"We anticipated getting going at the first of the year, but when we heard about the rebranding we did the survey and got started," Barta said.

Looking to work together

Barta said 26 out of 67 property owners responded last month to the survey.

A vast majority of respondents (83.3 percent) did not think rebranding should be done at this time and 95.6 percent of respondents thought there is a better use of the $15,000. Moreover, 96 percent said they don't feel City Hall communicates initiatives to downtown property owners.

"To be fair, it's very difficult to communicate with 100-some property owners," Barta said. "But with this group, it's a way for them to have that avenue. The city hasn't had that avenue. Hopefully, they view this as a positive. We want to work with the city, not against."

The survey also asked property owners to rank issues based on priority.

Maintaining a clean and safe environment was ranked the highest, followed by recruiting and retaining residential and commercial tenants, attracting visitors to the downtown, property maintenance and better gateways to downtown. Rebranding was scored the lowest.

Timing not right

Scrima and Waukesha Downtown Business Association President Norm Bruce recently said incorporating the GuitarTown theme into a new logo would be an appropriate way to show off downtown's arts and music culture and pay tribute to music icon Les Paul.

Barta said he doesn't agree with that concept.

"The consensus of our organization is that most do not agree with the GuitarTown theme," Barta said. "While it's a nice honor, we have a very distant connection to guitars and it would be a stretch to rebrand for GuitarTown. I think that's pretty obvious that this was one of the worries when the whole BID thing went down. I don't think we have to sugarcoat it, our mayor was pushing for GuitarTown to be the brand and it was clear the property owners were not happy about that."

Barta said "you could have the best brand, but that's not going to bring people downtown. What brings people downtown is having a clean and safe environment," something he said can be improved. Nevertheless, Barta said he isn't against rebranding. It's just about timing, he said.

"I don't think anybody I talked to was opposed to rebranding or against having the banners get a makeover," Barta said. "I think we would like to know the whole context of the plan and our concern is that it's wasting tax dollars and if this is not implemented right away how this meshes with the Central City Master Plan (long-range plan to improve downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods that was approved in 2012)."

Merchants want voice

He also questions how much money the city has to devote to the project after a study is done.

"If they don't have it, why do the study?" Barta said. "There's an awful lot of questions that need to be asked before spending money on a consultant."

That's where, he says, the property owners' new organization can help.

"We hope that some of the mistakes made last year that led to the property owners petitioning to disband the BID can be avoided in the future." Barta said. "We are hoping we can partner with the city on downtown issues. This can only be done with good communication.

"Please listen to those who are most affected by this issue, the downtown property owners. It makes no sense to proceed with a consultant to rebrand downtown if it isn't wanted by the property owners downtown."