While Beloit struggles over demographics, small-town Delavan thrives because of it

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  • Austin Montgomery/Beloit Daily News Shoppers exit the Fleet Farm store in Delavan, east of Beloit, on May 10. The development opened in October of 2018 and has been part of the Walworth County retail growth, with more on the way.

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    D'Auria

  • Austin Montgomery/Beloit Daily News Shoppers exit the Fleet Farm store in Delavan, east of Beloit, on May 10. The development opened in October of 2018 and has been part of the Walworth County retail growth, with more on the way.

  • 1

    D'Auria

DELAVAN - With multiple high-profile chain retail closings in the Beloit market, local travelers who venture along Interstate 43 may wonder why so many major retail brands keep popping up around the Delavan interchange.

What does small-town Delavan have that Beloit doesn't? After all, Delavan's population is 8,463 by a 2017 estimate. Beloit's corresponding number is just under 37,000.

In fact, since the early 2000s, much of Walworth County has been a hotbed for commercial development.

With the retail industry undergoing changes, a closer look at what makes an area favorable to growth in a shifting consumer market is required.

The area considered includes Darien, Delavan, East Troy, Elkhorn, Lake Geneva and Williams Bay, which together boast higher household incomes and property values compared to other parts of southern Wisconsin and cities of comparable size.

That demographic advantage is crucial.

But the factor accelerating the Walworth County the consumer market is seasonal and weekend tourism.

Places like Lake Geneva and Williams Bay are premier vacation and summer home locations for people across Wisconsin and, perhaps even more importantly, for thousands of well-heeled people from the Chicago area.

As a result, over the past two decades, the Walworth County area has added retailers like Target, Best Buy, TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, Kohl's and Mills Fleet Farm, with a Meijer superstore set for 2020.

In securing Fleet Farm, Delavan City Administrator Denise Pieroni said no direct incentives were given aside from covering infrastructure extension costs, common in most commercial development proposals. The 90-acre site includes both the Fleet Farm and Meijer store, part of a total 200-acre parcel, Pieroni said.

Walworth County Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Derek D'Auria says these factors are hard to represent in total economic impact, but have played major roles in securing the area's commercial development popularity.

"There was a lot of pent-up demand over the last 10 years or so, and that was pressure from all directions," D'Auria said. "It's a combination of factors of having good properties and so on."

D'Auria said Walworth County's success lies in finding ways to "balance growth."

"It's about working with municipalities to create business-friendly environments," D'Auria said. "The trick is balancing it all, from industrial growth to commercial development to fostering a downtown. If you have no downtown, it's harder to find industrial clients. I think everyone has worked hard in fighting the old reputation of small rural communities."

D'Auria said the surge in "second home" sales, with some wealthy residents spending 20 to 30 weekends a year in the Walworth County area, has helped support growth but also has caused housing markets in the county to become "saturated." Fewer homes are available and some communities are seeing around half of all property tax bills being sent to residents out-of-county or out-of-state.

"That shows how strong those second home populations are," D'Auria said.

D'Auria complimented the municipalities and their respective chambers of commerce for working to market the area for commercial growth.

"It's about trying to work with the various councils, boards and committees to educate them and to find out what makes sense for their communities," D'Auria said. "There are basic terms and conditions that go into attracting commercial development, from offering incentives by explaining their benefits and making sure the building process is as painless as possible."

He said communities across the county were seeing an influx in downtown "Main Street" development, noting that Beloit served as a leader for the state when it comes to downtown revitalization, noting comparable growth in East Troy's downtown core.

He said he considered hotel expansions to be comparable growth for the Beloit community. In 2018, Beloit welcomed three new hotels with a fourth under construction, a sign major companies recognize the Interstate 39/90 corridor as a key market for future growth.

"Our goal is trying to work with major municipalities to think through their economic development and what they want to do and help them with projects," D'Auria said.

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