New Downtown Kenosha director faces many of the same challenges

Published: March 31, 2017

When Nicole Thomsen takes the reins at Downtown Kenosha Inc. on May 1 she will run into many of the same challenges that have faced the city's downtown business district for a number of years.

Thomsen was the choice for the position of executive director, having been selected from an original pool of 50 candidates. The Pleasant Prairie resident will be the third person to hold the position since it was established three years ago.

"Nicole has an extraordinary commitment to the community, evident by her involvement in Ylink (a leadership development group), Kenosha Creative Space and other local causes," wrote Kevin Ervin, owner of Franks Diner, 508 58th St., and chairman of the DKI board of directors. "We are confident that her energy, professionalism and commitment to building strong relationships will be an asset to Downtown Kenosha Inc."

"We came up with about nine (applicants) who were the most qualified," said Lou Molitor, president of the Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce, and chairman of the Lakeshore Business Improvement board of directors. A special property tax assessment in the Lakeshore BID funds DKI. "We had six or seven (candidate) interviews.

"The two finalists came before the entire DKI board and a few invited guests. Nicole stood out for a number of reasons. We felt she was the most prepared as far as being able to answer some of the questions we had. She had done her homework and research and she wowed us with her preparation."

Youth may be surprising

Thomsen's youth may strike some as surprising. She will graduate from University of Wisconsin-Parkside this spring with a bachelor of science degree in business management. She has not held any similar position. Her resume, however, includes a number of public-facing roles in businesses, academia and non-profit organizations.

She received attention, and a number of employment offers following a first-place finish in a national collegiate sales competition.

"I was contacted (by companies) with a lot of corporate sales position offers," Thomsen said. "I knew I had natural talents and tendencies in sales, but I have always wanted to help people. To be a changer, a mover and shaker.

"I knew I wanted to do something in my community. I've had experience in the non-profit area, and I love the feeling of helping others, impacting the life of the city, its people."

Thomsen began her college career in the nursing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was within 18 months of graduating with a a degree in that field. Along the way she picked up experience as an obstetrics technician. Thomsen said: "I assisted in caesarian sections and deliveries. But I didn't feel excited to go to work every day. I didn't feel I was using all the skills I could be using.

"I interned at the Medical College of Wisconsin in community engagement, where I got my first taste of non-profit work. We were involved in everything from the business side to hands-on work in the community addressing socioeconomic health and education issues of the community."

Thomsen also interned with UW-Parkside Foundation in fundraising and development. "I learned about soliciting donations and how to handle donor relationships," she explained. "That is very similar in how you have to handle (the work) downtown to get people's support. It's (about having) a vision and a mission. What you are funding will not see results tomorrow or a month from now."

Thomsen will get training and personal development assistance through programs from the Wisconsin Main Street Program. DKI is a qualified recipient of Main Street technical assistance and other support.

Thomsen said she hopes to address the challenge of making newly hired employees at many of the county's biggest companies Kenosha residents.

"I want to focus on that," she said. "I want this to be a vibrant place where people want to live, not just to live here because (they work here). Having a stable, strong and robust downtown is going to make a big difference in attracting and keeping this millennial talent."

A rocky history for DKI

Downtown Kenosha Inc. and the Lakeshore Business Improvement District have had a rocky history. The BID has survived two dissolution attempts. The boundaries include what is considered the city's central business district, but also stretch north of 52nd Street into the neighborhood described as Harborside. Some of the biggest property tax bills in the BID go to owners in that area. Several of those business owners have been vocal about not receiving a fair share of the BID funds collected.

"There are different goals, objectives and problems (for Harborside)," said Jim Matzur, a former BID board member and owner of The Boat House Pub and Eatery, 4917 7th Ave. "Our problem is not retention, renovation and recruitment. Most of our properties north of 52nd are owner occupied and pretty well maintained by the owners."

Matzur and fellow Harborside restaurant owner, Rob Greskoviak, have led efforts in the past to eliminate the BID. One of their primary complaints was that beautification efforts, as well as marketing and event support dollars did not tend to make it to their blocks.

Greskoviak, who owns Villa D'Carlo, 5140 6th Ave., said he would take a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to what the new DKI director can deliver.

"She is not politically entrenched," said Greskoviak. "On the old BID board, a few members dictated all the policy. Now that we have a non-partisan, energetic young (person), there might be some hope. Would I support (DKI)? I would not stand in their way, but I won't participate at this time."

Matzur admits that in the past he has been a vocal critic of the Lakeshore BID, and the subsequent plans of Downtown Kenosha Inc. "I don't want to be negative, and I certainly was with the previous two (directors)," Matzur said. "I hope they redirect some of their focus to brick and mortar work, even if those of us on this end wouldn't benefit from it as much. I'm proud that when I was on the BID board, we did some of that."

About the Lakeshore Business Improvement District and Downtown Kenosha Inc.Lakeshore BID is a "fiscal agent" for Downtown Kenosha Inc. Other than a small amount of funds required for bookkeeping and an annual audit, the rest of the funds collected through a special taxing district are passed to DKI for the salary of the executive director and programs. For 2017, the mill rate increased from $1.50 per $1,000 to $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, increasing the 2017 budget by $45,000 to $125,000.

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