It’s around 2 p.m. on a Saturday in October in downtown Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
Around the central perimeter of the historic Mathias Mitchell Public Square, farmers’ market vendors are packing up their lettuce, tomatoes and decorated corn, closing shop until next weekend. It’s not as busy as it would have been a few hours ago, but there are still people walking around, enjoying the day.
One block south, Alexander Landerman is working on the lower portion of a mural on the outside wall of Divepoint Scuba & Paddle Adventure Center.
Stevens Point knows murals. They’re scattered throughout the downtown area, depicting historical and cultural scenes like loggers on the river or an homage to the large Polish heritage of the area.
Landerman’s recent addition to the list of murals, however, is a drastic visual shift from the more classic murals. It features two monochromatic foxes with a style akin to modern pieces of street art seen in bigger cities like Seattle or Portland.
Like most cities, Stevens Point has expanded in recent years with development in the surrounding areas, along Highway 10 and to the east in the neighboring Village of Plover.
Yet despite this expansion, the spirit of Stevens Point has survived through its downtown, which has undergone a cultural shift from an area infamous for its failing mall to a hub for art and shopping. And while Landerman’s piece is the most recognizable change to the area, his contribution is not the only part of this transition.
On Sept. 4, 1984, Mayor Michael Haberman and Stevens Point residents celebrated the groundbreaking of the CenterPoint Mall. Almost 28 years later, in August 2012, Mayor Andrew Halverson announced that work to demolish the mall officially began.
The mall was once full of people, enjoying the holidays and spending their time and money going from shop to shop. Soon after that, like many other areas around the country during the 2008 recession, businesses started failing and the ones that remained faced high rents and few customers. In 2012, with the definition of the downtown gone with the old mall, new ideas of what it meant to have a downtown, and what that would look like, started taking shape.
One of the organizations involved in this revival of the downtown area is the Arts Alliance of Portage County which has worked to commission Landerman’s mural, as well as the renovation and preservation of the abandoned Fox Theater, Romanesque Revival opera house that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Greg Wright, executive director of the alliance, wants to make the downtown area a center for contemporary art and entertainment, specifically filling the void of available activities for young professionals.
“We’ve got this really great downtown that’s been underutilized for a couple of decades,” Wright says. “How do we drive more people downtown? How do we help people see that it is a cool and trendy place? I think the artwork does that.”
Contemporary artwork, similar to that of the Sculpture Park — a collection of sculptures from local artists scattered along walking trails in the northern edge of the city — brings in visitors from around the state. Wright’s goal is to bring those same visitors to the downtown area with a “mural walk.”
In June, the alliance announced an open call for artists interested in showing their work at the Divepoint site and on another nearby wall.
“It really just turned into wanting to make something nice for the community I was raised in,” Landerman says.
In between the two foxes in Landerman’s mural, a quote reads: “What the lion cannot manage, the fox can.” It’s a nod to the passion and intelligence of the downtown shop owners.
Landerman’s mural has become a sort of local celebrity, appearing in many local newspapers and gaining online followers as Landerman posts updates to his Facebook page. A Stevens Point native and UW-Stevens Point graduate, Landerman currently lives in Indiana with his girlfriend. While the mural was in progress, he frequently commuted back to Wisconsin to work on it, which made him reflect on the downtown area and what it has to offer.
“[The community] all builds off of each other so well, and people don’t really have that [in Indiana], and because of that it’s not really an attractive place to live. I’m already looking at opportunities to not live there,” Landerman says.
He feels fortunate to have gotten some of these opportunities because commissions for big pieces typically go to older artists, who are perceived to be more reliable and established. He hopes his art will get other people excited to create more contemporary art downtown, especially because there are plenty of blank canvases.
“The juxtaposition between these old buildings and these new contemporary styles of art is really, really nice. It makes the art more exciting and it makes the building more exciting, because there’s a bigger difference between them,” Landerman says.
Landerman pointed out plenty of hidden spots where art could fill an otherwise empty wall.
“If you look around in Stevens Point, see there’s that little cinderblock spot there,” he says as he points to a nearby building. “There’s all these weird little Easter eggs that you can put murals on.”
Down the street, another fox is undergoing renovations: the Fox Theater.
For many decades, the theater has been vacant. Windows in the front doors were covered so passersby couldn’t see into the building and its current state. In the 1980s, a portion of the back of the theater was removed to make room for construction of the now-demolished mall.
Over time, the exterior of the building has been rehabbed, including a restoration of the lighted marquee sign on the front. But the theater is still desperate for much-needed repairs and renovations on the inside. Part of the reason why it hasn’t previously been restored is because the renovations are so costly.
Now, however, the alliance wants to turn the old Fox into a music, comedy, film and contemporary entertainment venue for the local area.
In a number of surveys conducted last year to determine the use of the Fox if renovated, Wright says that the average person reported driving over 110 miles for entertainment, to cities like Madison and Chicago.
“If we had access to that level of entertainment in town, people wouldn’t have to drive as far,” Wright says. “They could spend that money in Stevens Point, supporting local programming instead of spending that money in hotels and food and gas, in addition to the higher-priced tickets that they’re spending right now to go access entertainment.”
Wendell Nelson, a local author and historian, believes the Fox Theater is the “crown jewel” of the downtown area.
“I’d give my right arm to who can save that building,” Nelson says.
Nelson, who has lived in the area since 1971, studies the history of buildings in Stevens Point and has written books and given presentations on the topic. He now works at the reference desk in the downtown library and does consulting work for various restoration projects in the city.
While some residents favor putting money toward development in neighboring Plover, Nelson says, the downtown area is crucial to the city.
“Without the downtown, as Gertrude Stein wrote years ago … there is no there there,” Nelson says, referencing Stein’s book “Everybody’s Autobiography.” “You drive through town and you expect to find a downtown, an identity.”
For two decades, the identity of downtown Stevens Point was the mall. It was a reminder of a time when shopping downtown meant shopping at the mall. Nelson remembers the construction of the mall and shopping there, but he’s glad to see it in its new form.
“The mall was an unmitigated disaster,” Nelson says. “We had to have a mall because … Wisconsin Rapids and Wausau and Marshfield had malls. We destroyed block after block of stores on College Avenue and Briggs Street, nice little neighborhoods … and for what?”
Nelson says that although the mall was demolished, ironically, the downtown area has come back to life.
With much of the mall now gone, parts of it repurposed into Mid-State Technical College, the area has been filled in with parking, a patio and green space behind the tavern Guu’s On Main and artistic benches. And while the mall is now gone, much of the action is taking place on Main Street — where the foxes, both the theater and the mural, call home.
Across the street from the Fox Theater, Andrew Green is underway making preparations to renovate and restore the 14,000 square-foot building at 1055 Main St..
Green, who consulted with Nelson on the history and preservation of the building, bought the property to restore the front facade, create retail space on the first floor and turn the second floor into luxury apartments.
Before Green acquired the space in July, the building sat empty for nearly five years after Jim Laabs Music scaled down its store and moved to the building next door. In Green’s eyes, the vacant space was an eyesore and left a poor impression of the downtown.
Green’s other property, 913 Main St., was his first rental project in the downtown area after four years of traveling abroad for work. Green says he always liked the downtown area, but because of his travels, he didn’t spend much time downtown.
“I took some time to myself and wandered around downtown, and we had coffee every day at the coffee shop … and just kind of fell in love with the downtown,” Green says.
The big open windows on the current front display facing the street have allowed Green to chat with community members walking by who are curious about the project and thank him for restoring the building. In the future, Green wants people walking by to see 1055 Main as it was originally meant to be seen.
“They will look at this building and it will be a focal point of the downtown. It’ll be a historical landmark and it really will show what the downtown used to be like,” Green says. “If we can do that with the Fox Theater … and some other buildings, we’re going to have a historic downtown again.”
Much of the preparation for the renovation included investigating the history of the building, to determine its original appearance, but also finding funding especially for the construction of the front facade.
In October, the City of Stevens Point approved a grant of $90,000, taken from the Facade Improvement Grant Program, to be used for the restoration of the front facade. The grant covers less than half of the estimated $239,000 it will cost to complete. The high cost of the project, according to Green, is necessary to bring history back to the downtown.
“What we’re doing is a complete restoration, which is probably not the most financially lucrative way to do business, but it’s the right thing to do for Stevens Point,” Green says. “I feel very strongly for the downtown. And I didn’t want to just take this building and have it look like it looked before.”
Green’s vision for 1055 Main, as well as Wright’s vision for art and for the Fox Theater, is a testament to the passion of the downtown people — something similar to Landerman’s depiction of the downtown shopkeepers in his foxes.
“You’ve driven through downtowns that are just run down and gone and dead,” Green says. “We’re at a point now where it’s an attractive downtown. I think when we add three spaces here, and we get the right tenants, it will really drive more investment in the downtown. That’s what I’m hoping. Things that are of the right caliber, things you can only see in downtown Stevens Point.”