I’m staring out my office window at an automotive repair shop. This shop just opened, even though the sign says Opening Soon. Will that sign be replaced with a Now Open sign? It’s too early to know, but I’m not going to make a wager of any sort. I don’t know these people, I don’t know that shop. I wish them well, I suppose. The rumble of a diesel engine has been bothering me all morning, it’s coming from that shop. The shop shouldn’t be there, after all, but the Village of Williams Bay wanted something there, anything there. So they let someone build an automotive repair shop even when the town doesn’t need one. I told the village that to allow an automotive repair shop would be a bad idea, I said it wasn’t what the town needs, and it isn’t what the town wants. They didn’t listen. Opening Soon, the sign is still up.
This sort of thing plagues resort towns everywhere. We need business, but where can we find it? There are only so many coffee shops that one town can have, in fact there are usually too many. Boxed and Burlap is a nice coffee shop in Williams Bay and I’d suggest we needn’t any more. We have two auto repair shops, one pushing out the steady rumble of a diesel engine that is now, at this moment, grating on my nerves and ruining my focus. Opening Soon, I’ll bet. But the business of small town business isn’t easy, and that’s why the Lake Geneva market, in spite of its fabulous vacation home market, struggles to attract, and keep, ideal businesses.
Peet’s Coffee arrived in Lake Geneva a couple of years ago. Peet’s Coffee is now closed. In fact, they closed early this year, or was it last year? I’m not sure, but there’s nothing in that corner space now, nothing but a For Rent sign that tells business owners to call the number for details. Williams Bay has an empty corner where the Keg Room once offered eggs and toast and nighttime beers. The corner is vacant, still vacant, not even Opening Soon. It’s a nice corner, the one that an Illinois developer thought should host a tenement style condo building. But that development didn’t gain approvals because the Village of Williams Bay is smart, smart enough to keep that corner for something else, something better. The corner opposite is where I ate french fries off of the plates that came from Charley O’s dining room, the plates that stacked up at my dishwasher station.
I did eat the fries, but not the ones smeared with ketchup. I’d like to think I became a connoisseur of almost eaten fries. Shrimp cocktail, those I’d eat as well. If six shrimp were served on that cocktail sauced glass, why would I not eat the fifth and sixth shrimp that weren’t eaten by he who ordered them? But enough about my work habits, I was young then, barely 14, and I didn’t like seeing things go to waste. After Charley O sold, the restaurant was the Public House, then The Lighthouse. Then, the Shore Club. They’ve all failed, or been otherwise temporary, and now the building is empty. For Rent it says, across from the For Sale.
The problem here is simple. The real estate is desirable, the locations visible. The businesses who have occupied these locations were okay. Peet’s served coffee in that marbled space. The Shore Club served a taco trio for $17 or so, and it wasn’t the worst thing even if it was too expensive by half. The problem is, to quote someone who said this once, the rent is too damn high. You can’t sell burgers for $10 and pay massive rents, especially in a resort market where winter traffic is significant, but less than summer traffic. You cannot sell $3 coffees and pay for all that exposure, when all that exposure still doesn’t equal very many patrons on a Tuesday in January. The rents are simply too damn high.
What’s the fix? Where do we go from here? How do we stop this revolving door in some of our most prominent locations? I don’t know. I’m not a commercial guy. I’m just a residential guy who wishes he could count on the corner restaurant to serve a salad for $11 on Wednesdays in February. For now, I’ll go back to listening to the steady droll of this diesel engine. I think the mechanic has the issue almost solved, but I can’t be certain.