Cathy Fox, a commercial Realtor® with Coldwell Banker Commercial River Valley in Onalaska, Wisconsin, has long worked in the La Crosse, Wisconsin, market. And like others in the commercial real estate industry, she faced a mix of new challenges in 2020.
But like other commercial real estate pros, Fox is also seeing hope today as vaccines are distributed and COVID-19 cases continue to fall.
Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke with Fox about the impact COVID-19 has had on her market and her hopes for the future of real estate in this western Wisconsin community. Here is what she had to say.
How has La Crosse fared during the pandemic?
Cathy Fox: Like in all markets, it has been a challenge. But the market here has been resilient. The businesses here pretty much stayed open during most of the pandemic. There was a time in the beginning when a lot did close down. But we’ve been open pretty much since then. In downtown La Crosse, we have lost two or three businesses during the pandemic. But the rest are coming back.
Did businesses get creative during COVID-19 to find new ways to reach customers?
Fox: The city and businesses worked together starting last year to help everyone get through the pandemic. They created parklets downtown so that restaurants could expand outdoor dining. Restaurants were allowed to barricade off certain areas for tables and chairs. That helped our economy during the earlier days of the pandemic. It helped people stay in business when otherwise they might have had to shut their doors.
The restaurants and retailers here also embraced the to-go side of their businesses. Pickup and delivery in downtown was helpful. Most restaurants in downtown didn’t close or go out of business. The businesses were suffering, no doubt. And they were operating on limited staff, bare-bonesing it. But they did their best to stay open and work through the challenges they faced.
How did the city of La Crosse help its businesses during the pandemic?
Fox: The North La Crosse Business Association launched a program called Get On Living Safely that encouraged people to buy local. They also held safely distanced dinners in the park, where people stopped at their favorite restaurants first and then ate at the park. The businesses and city did a lot to promote the local businesses and remind people of how important it was to support them during the pandemic.
I know a lot of people live in downtown La Crosse. In some of the cities we cover, there was at least some exodus of people moving out of downtowns and into suburban areas during the pandemic. Has that happened in La Crosse?
Fox: That hasn’t happened here. Our downtown has a huge residential base. People like living downtown. That trend has really intensified during the last three or four years, and we expect that downtown residential will expand more in the coming years. We have a lot of historic buildings with upstairs apartments. We’ve also had some new apartment buildings go up downtown recently. This residential portion has helped get a mix of different people to our downtown. We have Millennials and people who have retired. They like the fact that they can walk to the theater, restaurants and bars. That downtown population has certainly helped us during the pandemic.
The pandemic has obviously upended life throughout the country. But do you think the momentum that you were seeing in downtown La Crosse will continue as COVID-19 slowly fades?
Fox: I do think that momentum will return. We have great river life here being on the Mississippi River. People enjoy walking and biking along the Mississippi River. Our downtown is strong, too. There are a lot of things you can do downtown besides eating in a restaurant. We have wonderful parks in our downtown area. We’ve been able throughout this pandemic to get people outside without them having to get too close to each other.
What are people looking for in downtown residential buildings today?
Fox: For the new residential buildings, the biggest amenity is parking. The bottom levels of our new apartment buildings have some commercial. But they are also coming with on-site parking. Parking is hugely important in our area, like in every other downtown. The downtown wasn’t built to support parking back when it was planned. Today, though, we need as much parking as we can get.
People are redoing the historic buildings in downtown, putting apartments on their second or third floors. We hadn’t had many apartments in downtown La Crosse for many decades. Our historic buildings needed some work. There was a lot of refurbishing that needed to be done. Fortunately, owners were able to rely on historic tax credits to make these buildings shine.
Did new retail follow as more people moved into downtown La Crosse?
Fox: I have seen an influx of retail. We just got a new clothing store downtown. People want retail in downtown. They also want more professional services that they can walk to, like veterinarians and financial advisors. We have a wide variety of ages of people living in downtown, so that makes it an attractive area for professional services. We’ve also gotten a few new businesses, too, including a Mexican restaurant and an Indian restaurant.
Our downtown is interesting. We have just one franchise restaurant downtown, Qdoba. Otherwise, none of the restaurants are franchised. They are all independent. We have everything from brew pubs to fine dining downtown.
What does the future look like for downtown La Crosse?
Fox: During the last month or two, we’ve seen more people in downtown. That coincides both with the vaccine distribution and the warmer spring weather. The future absolutely looks brighter. They’ve been building a new convention center all year during the pandemic. That was a good time for that construction to happen. The convention center will be finished next year. That will help our downtown get even busier. We are a river town, but for a long time we didn’t have river access for boats downtown. We have access to that now. We see more people boating and RVing because of the pandemic. We are seeing lots of activity in downtown, and I think it will only get better this summer.