Sarah Razner, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Published 1:45 p.m. CT April 11, 2018
Annie’s Fountain City Café holds grand reveal of renovation from Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s Main Street Makeover Contest.
FOND DU LAC – Annie’s has a new look.
A crowd gathered Wednesday morning in the street before Annie’s Fountain City Café, 72 S. Main St., to the view the unveiling of the business’ new façade, and renovated interior.
The project began months ago, when the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership, Inc., approached owners Annie and Gary Culver about the Main Street Makeover Contest through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, or WEDC. The WEDC provides the winner “personalized technical assistance” and up to $10,000 to renovate, according to a press release.
The contest is a portion of the Main Street Program, which Fond du Lac has been part of since 2004, said Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
“Basically what we’re looking for in identifying the people who get this top spot is a community supported small business with a vision and a very clear place in its neighborhood and that’s what Annie’s represented,” said Kleefisch.
The Culvers quickly jumped on board with idea.
“It was putting it out there. We had a good feeling because we have a good story here and we’ve tried to do a lot for the community and help out,” Gary Culver said of why they applied.
They soon received news that they were finalists, and then in January, Hansen and the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership came into Annie’s wearing hard hats.
“It didn’t dawn on us at first,” said Gary Culver. “My comment to Anne was ‘Is there a Bob the Builder Convention’ going on?”
The downtown Fond du Lac business has been named the winner in the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s Main Street Makeover Contest. Doug Raflik/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Then it hit them, with much excitement and emotion.
“I didn’t think I’d win. I really didn’t. I mean, just was like, ‘well we can do it.’ Really, l felt like we were doing well, but it was like to have a professional group of people come in and design your space and create this is just incredible,” Annie Culver said.
A four-day renovation
Over the following months, the Culvers worked with Retailworks Inc. to develop what they wanted in their renovation.
As the Culvers had reached out to the community through Annie’s, the community reached back. More than $3,000 was raised through a Kickstarter campaign for the outdoor seating parklet.
Local businesses donated contracting, electrician and carpentry services; individuals also contributed to the project — including the café’s customers and friends.
“A lot of our customers aren’t just customers, they’re our friends now. We’ve made so many lifelong friendships just in the two years we’ve been open,” said Gary Culver.
Two weeks ago, painting began, with much of the work starting last Saturday afternoon. Crews worked day and night to complete the project over four days.
By the completion of the project, $34,000 was contributed to the project by the WEDC, City of Fond du Lac Redevelopment Authority and the partnership. More than $3,000 was contributed by the community, as well as in $85,000 in-kind services and materials from nearly 20 other businesses and individuals. The total value of the project is $122,000.
All this was then covered by a large silver tarp, which was removed at the unveiling ceremony on Wednesday.
The grand reveal
Stepping out from under it, Annie was surprised to see the number of people who had come out.
“I was amazed. All of my customers, all my friends, and then my aunt is here from Door County. It’s just amazing,” she said.
Leaders from the community and the state including Fond du Lac City Manager Joe Moore, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, Hansen, partnership board member Alan Hathaway, and Kleefisch, to celebrate what has turned into a community effort.
“I was telling Annie that it’s been every day that someone is coming forward to say ‘how about I help with this? How about I donate this product? How about I help volunteer?’ It’s just overwhelming the support we’ve seen from the community. But it’s because the Culvers are extremely generous people themselves and have given back to us so many times,” said Hansen.
Getting teary in her speech, Annie thanked those who worked on the project, the staff and the customers.
“The community coming together for us just blows my mind. I am so blessed and thankful for everything,” she said.
Thiesfeldt praised the Culvers’ efforts, stating that theirs and others will help rejuvenate downtown.
“They not only are interested in revitalizing the downtown, they aren’t just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk. They’re doing stuff about it,” said Thiesfeldt. “We have a number of people in our community who do that as well and we need that in our city if we’re going to make it a great gathering place for our community once again.”
Two months ago, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch learned of the project when attending an aerospace and aviation day at the Fond du Lac Airport which Annie’s was catering. Finding the idea charming and “uniting of neighbors,” she knew she had to attend.
“This program is not one where there is a winner. I have to be honest with you, Annie, you didn’t win. Annie and the Fountain City Café earned every single one of those $10,000 for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation,” she said at the unveiling. “Annie’s was something special. She stood out in the crowd.”
What’s behind the curtain?
With a megaphone, Kleefisch called for raising of the curtain, revealing the yellow building, with silver and white accents. A retro electric sign is mounted above the awning, paying homage to McKnight’s Drug Store, a former inhabitant of the space. Its windows are filled coffee cups and bowls, as well as a blue table, representing “Fond du Lac Says No More.”
Sitting in front of the café is a parklet, designed by Habitat For Humanity ReStore, featuring gray tables and robin eggs blue chairs for the customers and the community to enjoy.
Inside the café are new countertops, tile, lighting fixtures, displays, signs and display boards. The baking cooler houses a variety of foods, including pies ready to be bought. In the back, a new stage sits, made by a customer who’s son plays at Open Mic night. Vintage pictures of downtown Fond du Lac are on display on blue walls, along with the artwork of local residents and the couple’s collection of cookware.
“Supporting our local artist community very important to us. It’s amazing the amount of talents we have in the artist community in Fond du Lac,” said Gary Culver.
The space is also expanded, allowing room to meet and eat.
“It created more space for the community to come in. I want it to be a place for people feel comfortable to come in and work on the computers and meet with friends,” said Annie Culver.
It is hoped the renovation will bring in more people, which will be aided by the extended hours of Monday through Sunday. The partnership will monitor the renovation’s effects on traffic, awareness and more.
The rebirth of downtown
Not only will the project be a benefit to the cafe, but hopefully another step in moving downtown Fond du Lac forward.
Moore sees the renovation as the sign of a continuing revival in downtown and the many good days ahead, he said.
“I’m impressed with the inspiration this will give other property owners, too,” said Moore. “The last three or four years, there has been a lot of improvement on Main Street and the downtown area. It’s almost as if the neighbors down here have inspired each other to continue to improve their properties.”
Projects like this, Kleefisch said, draw millennials to the community, as they “trend towards walkability and density” and enjoy small businesses.
“I think patronizing small businesses and entrepreneurs like Annie Culver is something that is rewarding not just because of the customer experience, but also, you’re contributing to your own tax base and additionally you’re causing the creation of new jobs in your community,” she said. “To see the resurgence of that type of mentality in our historic downtowns in outstanding.”
As the community finds inspiration in the renovation, it can also find them in the words painted above the kitchen’s door by Retailworks: “She changed her can’ts into cans and her dreams into plans.”
“That’s my mantra. I was told that I couldn’t do this. I said, you know what, ‘I’m doing it.’ That’s just perfect for me,” said Annie Culver.