Kohl’s store offers opportunity to revitalize downtown retail

Before freeways and suburban malls, and long before online retail, downtown Milwaukee — and the downtowns of other cities like it in America — had sidewalks crowded with pedestrians and a wide range of…

Before the highways and suburban malls, and long before online retail, downtown Milwaukee – and the downtown areas of other cities like it in America – had sidewalks packed with pedestrians and a wide array of shopping options.

T. A. Chapman operated a department store on Wisconsin Avenue downtown from the late 1800s until it closed in 1981.

Gimbels opened a department store on Wisconsin Avenue in 1887. In the 1980s it was acquired by Marshall Field’s. This store closed in 1997.

Boston Store also had a department store on Wisconsin Avenue from 1897 until 2018 when its parent company, The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., ceased operations.

Grand Avenue Mall, which opened in 1982 with Gimbels and Boston Store serving as flagship stores at the east and west ends of the mall, started strong but then declined sharply and is now redeveloped as The Avenue, which has a catering, office space and apartments, but much less commercial space than the mall.

The golden age of downtown Milwaukee retail is long gone. But perhaps he is about to resume.

From 2010 to 2020, downtown Milwaukee and some of its surrounding neighborhoods were among the fastest growing places in the state. The greater downtown area, including the Lower East Side, the Third Historic District and the northern part of Walker’s Point, had a population of 37,563 in 2020, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Downtown Milwaukee’s population has grown as its retail offerings have dwindled and consumers have increasingly turned to online shopping. But at some point, the region’s growing population is expected to attract more stores.

That’s why Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s Corp.’s plans to open a store in the old downtown Boston Store space are so exciting. With its headquarters and most of its stores in the suburbs, Kohl’s has long resisted setting up a store in downtown Milwaukee.

The company’s decision to finally open a store there is an intriguing change. Under pressure from some investors to improve its performance, Kohl’s management recently considered selling the company but decided against it, opting instead to pursue its turnaround strategy. This strategy includes plans for approximately 100 small-format stores at about half the size of a typical 80,000 square foot Kohl’s store.

The idea behind the smaller stores is to use them to enter markets, like downtown Milwaukee, that the company was unable to serve with its larger stores.

This move is a huge vote of confidence for downtown Milwaukee by Kohl’s.

It will be very interesting to see how this store works. If all goes well, this could be a turning point for downtown Milwaukee retail and more stores could follow suit and open locations there.

But if downtown residents don’t patronize their neighborhood Kohl’s store, it won’t survive and other retailers won’t be interested in coming. not

David H. Henry