Yesterday, Oakfire Pizza, the restaurant that bought our old building in Minocqua, announced that they would be closing in September. That historic Masonic Lodge, which has been a restaurant since ~2002, was a cornerstone of downtown and used to serve food to 900 people at day (at least while we owned it).
Paul Bunyan’s, a breakfast fixture for probably 30 years and big tourist attraction, didn’t even open this summer.
Why isn't Downtown Minocqua thriving?
Here's a few thoughts...
--The downtown area is old and dilapidated, and there's no strategic plan to connect the main street to beautiful lake Minocqua within blocks of where the Minocqua Bats water ski troupe performs. This means there are many streets full of precious downtown real estate that are practically abandoned during the busiest summer months.
--Other than the Bearskin trail, there has been almost zero attention paid to the experience of bicyclists and walkers. In the closed-minded quest to nurture snowmobilers while global warming has reduced snow reliability to about 2 months per year, our town "leaders" forgot about those who thrive on healthy modes of transportation that provide exercise and make tourists hungry and thirsty. If you go thirty minutes north to Manitowish Waters, you can bike and walk for hours on paths that connect the downtown to the lakes and the woods. Why WOULDN'T you choose that town if you're a tourist that likes to bike or walk?
--There is no longer much nightlife for the over 30 crowd. Sure you can do shots and dance on tables at Ottos after 10 pm, but that gets a little painful as your liver ages. The town pretty much shuts down after 8 pm these days, and that feeling of "deadness" is exacerbated because downtown business don't work together to coordinate open hours. This confuses tourists and ultimately incentivizes them to "create their own fun" back at the cabin. And let's not even talk about the fact that if you don't wanna buy fudge and t-shirts, you don't have many other shopping options.
--The tourism board is both underfunded and misdirected. Room taxes are the vehicle that funds tourism boards, and Minocqua's room tax rates are among the lowest in the state. This means there's no money to attract urban planning/event planning specialists that could bring businesses together to curate special weekends (read Appleton's Mile of Music happening now). And without that leadership, these room tax funds are being wasted on websites and social media outreach that have little to do with building community and cooperation among businesses to work together to attract tourists.
--There has been almost no strategic effort to attract workers for the summer tourism season. The year-round population of Minocqua skews older, and there's very little affordable housing for young people looking for seasonal tourism jobs. Additionally, from our experience, there is almost zero communication between Rhinelander's Nicolet College culinary program and Minocqua restaurants, and very little investment in any hospitality programs at that nearby community college. This means that even if you can attract younger workers from the bigger neighboring town, you're not providing the training for them to work in the tourism industry--thus exacerbating a painful worker shortage that hamstrings all but the richest businesses (read Trigs Grocery and Walmart, who have HR staffs that can work all year to recruit seasonal foreign workers). Another bad outcome is that tourists often experience terrible customer service because seasonal workers are thrown to the wolves with almost no training.
What is the common theme among all of these problems hurting Minocqua Tourism?
A lack of leadership and a policy of government austerity.
Minocqua has been hopelessly rudderless since I moved there in 2013.
The town board refuses to invest the money that's needed to make our town thrive, and the county has delegated most all issues concerning the UNINCORPORATED TOWN of Minocqua to their town board that basically rubber stamps the opinions of one man--Town Board Chairman Mark Hartzheim.
And without the town's help, the tourism board will continuously be underfunded and anemic.
The Town Board had an amicable relationship with us when the Minocqua Brewing Company hosted live music every weekend all year long, coordinated Sunday "Party in the Park" live music all summer long, hosted "Science on Tap" every month, sponsored the Dragon Boat Festival, sponsored and bankrolled the extremely popular "Ice Cold Beer Fest," and helped create and procure wine for the annual and successful "Island City Wine Walk."
Of course it was amicable. MBC was the juggernaut for town culture. But Covid changed things, and the Minocqua Brewing Company became a local pariah because we were one of the few restaurants that took Covid seriously.
Our latest attempt at getting a fair shake with the town of Minocqua and our County zoning committee was a plan that outlined a place where food trucks could serve customers and a beer garden where we'd nurture live music between 11-7pm, way early enough to not disturb the neighbors.
Given how much we did for the community pre-covid, and how we've already created an awesome "community space" while not being allowed to have a beer garden or a food truck that would enable an even larger "space" for tourists, it is absolutely appalling that the Town and County refuse to budge an inch on our requests to give us what has been given to almost any other business that requests it--an outdoor space and the parking exemptions needed to create it.
The downtown is dying, the Minocqua Brewing Company is thriving. We believe we have some pretty reasonable ideas of how to revive Downtown Minocqua and would be willing to help do that, but why would we spend an ounce of energy helping save a town that is trying to put us out of business?
That's the reason we’re not giving up and staying open.
So that's why we call for the town and the county to END MINOCQUA'S WAR ON BEER.