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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reinventing Shorewood

New bars draw nightlife to an unlikely suburb

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Camp Bar owners Paul and Natalia Hackbarth say they modeled the bar after their cabin in northern Wisconsin. To judge by the looks of the establishment, it must be quite a cabin. For all its taxidermied animal heads, antler-antenna chandeliers and log woodwork, the bar is as chic as it is rustic, channeling a northern lodge through the lens of an urban cocktail lounge. Though the Hackbarths just opened Camp in November, it’s proven popular beyond what they could have expected, drawing near-capacity weekend crowds and praise from Details magazine, which this January crowned it one of the best new bars in the country. Business has been so brisk, in fact, that the owners are already planning on expanding the bar, extending it into the space next door and completing the cabin theme by adding a fireplace.

“We’re expanding because we don’t have enough room for all the people who want to be there; we watch a lot of people walk into the bar and walk out right away because it’s so busy,” Paul Hackbarth said. “I think the reason why the bar has clicked is that it’s down to earth, it’s comfy and it’s cozy. Who doesn’t like going up north and relaxing? The reason you go up north is to sit back, relax, crack a beer and sit by the fire. So the bar really has a unique feel. It’s something people haven’t seen before.”

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Camp is its location. It’s the type of high-concept bar that would fit right in on the trendiest strips of the East Side or Bay View, yet it’s housed at 4044 N. Oakland Ave. in Shorewood, a historically quiet suburb better known for its family mindset and high-ranking school system than any sort of organized nightlife. Over the last five or six years, though, that’s been changing, as new bars and restaurants have sprouted along Oakland Avenue, attracting patrons from both inside and outside the village.

A block to the south of Camp, the Oakcrest Tavern has done steady business since opening in 2007, but most of the growth has been several blocks to the north, where the corner of Oakland and Kensington Boulevard hosts a constellation of new hotspots. Recent additions to that intersection have included the Thief Wine bar, North Star American Bistro, Nana Asian Fusion Sushi Bar, an Alterra café, a tasting room for the Big Bay Brewing Co. and Three Lions Pub, an English pub that draws some of the neighborhood’s youngest crowds.

All that growth is welcome news for Dennis Cox, who owns Shorewood’s oldest bar, the Village Pub, fortuitously positioned near all that new development at 4488 N. Oakland Ave. For decades, the Village Pub was one of Shorewood’s only drinking options—a low-key place where neighbors could grab a beer and a decent burger in a lodge-like environment of a decidedly less self-aware variety than Camp's. Neighbors put the pub to good use, but it was hardly a magnet for outside traffic.

“Seven years ago, I was the only game in town, but the change is OK with me,” Cox said. “I’ve always been the guy saying bring more bars and more people into the area and everyone will do well. Now we have more people coming here during the day and night to check the area out. My business is growing. It’s new and exciting for people. People are talking now about Shorewood being the destination of the North Shore. Every patio is full around here now.”

Shorewood’s rapid growth didn’t happen by happenstance. It was the result of an aggressive, coordinated campaign to encourage business, one that village officials say was necessary to address the suburb's shifting demographics. Shorewood's population had been steadily aging, as parents who had moved to the suburb to take advantage of the schools opted to stay in their houses after their children graduated. With few houses on the market, young families were no longer moving to Shorewood at the rates they previously had, and enrollment in Shorewood’s school system started to decline. Since state aid for public schools is tied to enrollment, the system risked major budget cuts down the road.

While bringing bars and restaurants to an area may seem like a counterintuitive way to buoy a school system, Shorewood village manager Chris Swartz says that commercial growth was essential for attracting young families.

“The more vibrant the community you have, the more folks you bring to it, and one measure of vibrancy is retail and the number of restaurants you offer,” Swartz said. “In order to bring new people in, you really have to have something to sell them, and so along with our upgraded parks and recreation areas, having an active downtown with great restaurants is part of our whole branding.”

And so in 2006 the village board passed a sweeping strategic community vision plan that, among other things, singled out redevelopment opportunities, re-landscaped Oakland Avenue, marketed the village and sought to lure new business with incentives like generous grants and loans and a façade-improvement program for old buildings.

It’s been an expensive campaign, and a major departure for a suburb that’s never been known for being especially business friendly, but Shorewood is seeing returns on it. Oakland Avenue is now as dense a commercial strip as it’s ever been. Jim Plaisted, director of Shorewood’s Business Improvement District, says that new businesses have increased the village’s tax base, taking the heat off homeowners who face one of the highest tax burdens in Wisconsin. Likewise, Plaisted said that new apartment developments on Oakland Avenue spurred by the plan have helped ease the village’s housing crunch.

“We’re finding that some of the apartments are attracting empty-nesters right out of their homes in Shorewood, so instead of renting apartments downtown the way a lot of retired people do, they’re staying in the neighborhood while putting houses on the market for families to buy,” he said.


                                                            “It Isn’t North Avenue”

The Oakland Avenue makeover hasn’t thrilled everybody. Any development strategy as far-reaching as Shorewood’s was going to meet with at least some opposition, and much of it has unsurprisingly come from neighbors near the Oakland/Kensington corridor, who now find themselves in ever-tighter competition for limited parking with bar and restaurant patrons.

“Anybody who lives in that area hates it, because they have a hard time getting out of their driveway and there’s never any parking on the street,” said longtime Shorewood resident David Tatarowicz. “It’s a big inconvenience for them.”

Tatarowicz says he finds himself avoiding the Kensington area because it’s too crowded, but his objections to the village’s development strategy extend beyond just parking.

The growth in business has been artificial because the village has been paying for it,” he said. “I think the village has its priorities all wrong; we don’t need that many restaurants and taverns in one area. It seems like Shorewood is trying to invent something that I don’t think it can pull off. In Milwaukee, you’ve already got Brady Street, you’ve got Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View, you’ve got Water Street. Those are the places where people are looking to go out, because they’ve already got the demographic there. I just don’t see Shorewood becoming that.”

Shorewood bar owners, though, say the area isn't trying to become the next North Avenue. Cox of the Village Pub said that even on the weekends, the bars around the Kensington/Oakland intersection are drawing an older, quieter clientele than the kind the East Side attracts. “You can always tell, because even on a busy night, my bathrooms aren’t trashed, and people aren’t puking,” he said. “Those are always signs that you’re not attracting too much of a young crowd.” Cox estimates that the pub still draws roughly the same aged crowd it always has, with most patrons falling somewhere between their 30s and 60s.

Camp Bar's Paul Hackbarth said he’s been similarly surprised by the age of his patrons. “When we opened, I assumed we’d get a lot of college kids, but to be honest, that hasn’t happened,” he said. “Even on Fridays and Saturdays, we don’t see a lot of students; it’s mostly people in their 30s and 40s here, and I enjoy seeing the mix of people that we draw. That’s a comment I get from a lot of costumers, that they like that we don’t just draw a young crowd, or an old crowd. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable going to North Avenue after a certain hour, but this isn’t Water Street, and it isn’t North Avenue. It’s truly a mix of everybody.”
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