Last weekend, it was hot. You know that. I know that. It was super hot. Smoking hot. Summer hot. If you were here, then you were less hot than the other people who chose to stay there. But still, hot. Williams Bay had a big pile of rocks on its lakefront, with some earth moving equipment stacked next to a small stream that I’d like to have moved. If I do anything in this life, it should be that I’ll have that stream moved. On Memorial Day, Williams Bay had a nice little Memorial Day Parade. The dandelions noticed. The earth moving equipment, sitting idle for the weekend out of respect, noticed. The trees in the beach park, with weeds growing up around them, noticed. Williams Bay was not ready for prime time.
It was Memorial Day Weekend in Fontana, too. The beach was combed, the large pile of sand pushed up to that child-friendly mound. The boulevards were mowed and trimmed. The baseball diamond that has withstood lakefront re-development was mowed, its infield dragged. Someone might have dusted off the bases, I can’t be sure. The Harbor is new now, shiny and better. No matter that the floating piers are awkward still and they slope unnaturally from shore, and there might be a few too many lights, LED or not. But the Harbor was spiffed and the boats were waxed and the infield was dragged. In the boulevards, flowers bloomed.
In Lake Geneva, the road project near the lakefront was completed. The giant potholes that plagued that lakeside stretch of Main Street have been fixed, and just in time. But the yards that were torn to complete this work were only seeded, not sodded. So the dandelions pushed and the grass stalled. The glistening blacktop flanked by messy stretches of straw and netting. Sod would have been nice, considering it would have required such a modest amount. My friend had a sod farm once. He closed it down and planted corn, because no one wanted to pay him for his fine sod.
What exactly are these lakeside communities? What do they aspire to be? I contend that only one town here knows the answer to that question. Fontana knows what it is, what it wants to be, where it wants to go. It makes the effort. It sees the vision. It understands the market, the clientele, and the visual that they demand. Williams Bay hasn’t a clue. Not a single, tiny clue. There’s an auto-repair shop with constant torque wrenches and a view of the lake. There are three ice cream shops within a 150 yard radius. Most of the shop spaces are for rent, and those that aren’t will be some day. There’s a piece of vacant dirt in the downtown with a FOR SALE sign. For Rent signs litter the surrounding corners. Williams Bay is a sleepy hamlet, but it’s only sleepy because it doesn’t have a plan. Without a plan, why get out of bed?
In spite of Fontana’s confidence and Williams Bay’s awkward adolescence, Lake Geneva is the town that truly isn’t sure of itself. On one hand, a dynamic, rare lakefront. Parks, walkways, grass and water. The new walkway over the beach is smart and shows awareness. The downtown remains idyllic, even if the rents are too damn high and the result is too many vacancies. The downtown is truly the only thing that needs to remain a draw, and there’s no danger of that status changing. But around that special downtown, what exactly is the City of Lake Geneva doing?
A five story chain hotel adjacent its major thoroughfare? Big Box stores of all makes and models littering its primary entrance? Increased revenue from every angle but no decrease in taxes? Why is it so had to understand what it is that the residents and visitors want? The Wisconsin Dells is a nice enough place, I suppose. If you get married on a Friday and have no time for anything but a two day weekend, then the Dells is nice. Honeymooning at a waterpark, that’s something. But absent that shot-gun wedding, or a carload of 12 year olds headed for a birthday party, who really wants to go to the Dells? Not me. And not the people who call Lake Geneva home, whether that’s a permanent home or a seasonal one.
These lakeside municipalities have made strides in the last decade, but only one has identified its highest and best use. Fontana, thank you for being what you are. Thank you for understanding yourself. Williams Bay, please, please figure it out. Million dollar bike paths are fine, but are they? Invest in your lakefront. Invest in your downtown. Offer incentives to develop and redevelop your commercial buildings and residential properties that line your main streets. It’s so great that you’ve spent untold millions on your school buildings. Terrific. Now focus on the reason your tax base is so high and your expenses are so low: the lakefront and your general business district. And lastly, to the City of Lake Geneva. Stop it. Be a high end resort town. Every time a new proposal for some new nonsense comes your way just ask yourself: Does anyone like the Dells?