Partnership leads to reimagined gathering space in Oconomowoc

A quiet sip of early morning coffee from an Adirondack chair overlooking the calm water. A brisk walk with an energetic pup, tracing the Fowler Lake shoreline. A circle of friends enjoying the beer garden’s latest drafts. Welcome to the Oconomowoc boardwalk, whose reconstruction has been pivotal in drawing residents and visitors back to a revitalized downtown over the past two years.

“I jog along the boardwalk when I can, and it’s beautiful,” said Oconomowoc resident Jeremy Weber. “Knowing what it looked like before, it’s a huge improvement to that area, and I’ve never seen it being used more.”

City officials, too, appreciate the social and economic benefits of the enhanced space.

“The updated look and feel has increased activity and helps establish our community as a destination,” said Bob Duffy, director of economic development for the city of Oconomowoc. “Part of the goal of establishing a vibrant downtown is to create amenities where people can gather, feel safe and comfortable. This project meets those elements.”

It’s a project whose path to completion is as inspiring as the finished product. Born through community input, collaboration and both public and private support, the boardwalk, as Oconomowoc Area Foundation (OAF) Board Chair Patricia Neudecker says, “is a great example of what people can do when they work together.”

A centennial catalyst

A downtown revitalization plan was adopted by the city in 2004, according to Duffy, with new investment sparking redevelopment in 2008. While a renovated boardwalk was envisioned even then, the idea took flight in 2015, as the Greater Milwaukee Foundation was marking its centennial by providing signature gifts to develop lasting public spaces in each of the four counties it serves.

Nate Zastrow, executive vice president and CFO of First Bank Financial Centre, was the OAF board chair at the time and recalls how their leadership met with city officials, school officials, business leaders and philanthropists to survey community needs. Each person stressed that a project needed to be all inclusive for the community and connected to the resurgence of downtown. Updating the boardwalk touched on everyone’s priorities.

GMF’s $200,000 investment joined $75,000 from the OAF to kick off the project, with private and government sectors adding their support. When the boardwalk reopened in 2017, it was universally embraced.

“Without the lead grants by the OAF and GMF, I am not sure we would be where we are at today,” Zastrow said. “The boardwalk is utilized by all generations almost all year round. It cleaned up an area that was used but very outdated and falling apart.”

A city centerpiece

The city paid attention to detail as it designed and constructed the boardwalk, using low maintenance materials and adding unique features such as curved pergolas and furnishings, said Bryan Spencer, superintendent of parks and forestry. This year, umbrellas are introducing more shade, responding to community feedback.

“We want people to experience downtown and visit our businesses – go to the coffee shop, enjoy the waterfront, enjoy the view,” Spencer said.

In other words, the boardwalk is a connector of people and place.

“Gathering places can foster relationships, and relationships are vital for community life,” Neudecker said. “The boardwalk really allows people to meet, mingle and enjoy the beauty of Oconomowoc year-round. It gives people a sense of pride. It’s attractive and an attraction.”

Neudecker also points out how the OAF, now in its 17th year, is demonstrating how it can be a leader in satisfying needs that are obvious and apparent as well as enhancing quality of life.

“This is a fabulous project that shows how the OAF is a conduit,” she said. “This project was collaborative with the city and GMF and the OAF all creating opportunities for donors and channeling those funds into something that benefits the entire community. It’s a treasure without a doubt."