Beloit gains Great American Main St. Award

The Facebook conversation begins in a neutral manner: “Heading to Beloit; seeking your input,” I write.

“Head SouthWest – LOL,” responds a high school classmate, two minutes later.

“Beloit. The sound a nickel makes when dropped into a bucket of water,” adds a friend in Illinois.

“Gentlemen, your reactions are what I suspected. Hope to take you deeper than that water bucket,” is my reply.

Stephanie Klett, the state’s tourism secretary, was just the gal to help. The Beloit resident is among the city’s biggest cheerleaders.

So is Mary Erpenbach, sister of state Sen. Jon – one of the “Wisconsin 14” – so, you see, this is not a partisan issue.

“I HEART Beloit,” Mary wrote on Facebook, and she offered a boat ride to show off the city’s beauty. I read that message after six hours with Stephanie, who says, “If you haven’t been to Beloit in five years, you don’t know it.”

The misunderstood city just received a Great American Main Street Award, one of five cities nationwide to earn the distinction this year from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Only four others in Wisconsin – Green Bay (Broadway District), La Crosse, Chippewa Falls and Sheboygan Falls – have gotten the award, which recognizes revitalization that respects historic preservation.

“Once people get here, they get it,” says Kathleen Braatz, Downtown Beloit Association executive director. “We’re celebrating what’s authentic” while encouraging a dozen independently owned restaurants downtown – supper clubs to bistros, and live music during most evenings.

“This is not just the effort of one person,” Deb Frederiksen, Visit Beloit executive director, says of the ongoing work. “It represents a movement.”

I know of no rankings, at this point, that include Beloit as a top tourist destination. The city’s longstanding reputation as a high-crime and tired factory town isn’t an enticement to venture off the Interstate 90 raceway between Minneapolis and Chicago.

“Decades ago, we were an industrial city and went through hard times, but now we embrace that heritage,” says Stephanie, a native of Beloit, alum of Beloit College and 1992-93 Miss Wisconsin.

Neither does she sugarcoat the challenges. One example: At least 70 percent of Beloit children live in single-parent families, more than twice the national average. Another: Beloit’s unemployment rate is routinely among the highest in Wisconsin.

But what outsiders don’t hear or see, unless they exit the interstate, is the community pride and commitment that endures within this city of 37,000. Follow the Rock River, and you’ll see what I mean.

Outside a long-shuttered downtown factory, the Ironworks, are gigantic and colorful murals that depict the work of the era. Nearby, a seasonal farmers’ market at Grand and State streets has operated on Saturdays for 40-plus years.

A 3.5-mile paved trail loops around the water, wooing all ages north, to the lagoon, paddleboats, creative playgrounds and free events at Riverside Park, whose 23 acres are home to concerts and outdoor movies during summer. Add free dance lessons from 7-8 p.m. on Mondays at the park pavilion, known at Harry’s Place (after local philanthropist Harry C. Moore), 20 public sculptures and more music at nearby venues.

“My heart just bursts with pride for Beloit,” says Nikki Meyer, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront, whose volunteers are committed to shoreline enhancement. “Other cities have the same river but don’t feel the same about it” or treat it with as much respect.

Inside a former Catholic church on the riverfront are the 13,802 figurines that comprise the Angel Museum that caught Oprah Winfrey’s attention a few years ago; in the collection is her donation of 700 black angels. “My husband and I wondered how many different ways could an artist depict a figure with wings and a halo,” says Joyce Berg, museum founder, to explain why she and her late husband Lowell began their collection, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records since 2001. Look for Joyce in the angel costume when visiting. www.angelmuseum.org, 877-412-6435

Off the riverfront are enterprises with longevity and character. Example: A “you’re next” sign at Austin’s Barber Shop, in business since 1917, means Rod Gottfredsen has time to show off his collection of Coca-Cola bottles from around the world and provide a peek of the alligator in his basement. On a wall: Beloit’s 2006 re-creation of Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” painting. www.rodthebarber.com, 888-245-3658

What else?

Inspect “The Cube,” a glass storage vault that displays about 5,000 of the 300,000 objects housed at the Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College. Admission is free. “We look at it as a good way to sharpen people’s visual literacy,” says William Green, director. “We are such a virtual world – there are thousands of years of cultural history here.” www.beloit.edu/logan, 608-363-2677

Within eyesight is the free Wright Museum of Art, whose eclectic holdings – Asian to locally produced art – are largely alumni donations. Notice the Greek plaster casts from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. www.beloit.edu/wright, 608-363-2000

Handouts guide you through the sustainable features of the college’s light-filled and airy Science Center, which scores a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum – the highest grade possible – from the U.S. Green Building Council. www.beloit.edu, 608-363-2000

Beloit Snappers minor league baseball games draw in families in search of wholesome entertainment at a reasonable price. Just ignore their association with the Minnesota Twins, and you’ll be fine. www.minorleaguebaseball.com, 608-362-2272

For more about things to do in Beloit: visitbeloit.com, 800-423-5648; www.friendsofriverfront.com, 608-362-0964.

Marquee summer events include Beloit Riverfest, July 6-10 at Riverside Park, with three stages of music – blues and country to rock and jazz. www.beloitriverfest.com

Come winter, the Beloit International Film Festival draws fans of independently made productions to multiple locations. www.beloitfilmfest.org

Live music is booked 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on summer Fridays at First National Bank Plaza downtown. In early evening, the free music moves to Riverside Park from 5-10 p.m. Another much-loved music venue is the outdoor riverfront patio of Café Belwah, 6-10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Six miles west of Beloit is Beckman Mill, 11600 S. Hwy H, a restored 1868 grist mill whose caretakers are volunteers who demonstrate the old-time equipment 1-4 p.m. on weekends, through October. This 50-acre county park also attracts picnickers and shoreline fishermen. www.beckmanmill.org, 608-751-1551

All “Roads Traveled” columns are archived at roadstraveled.com. These articles began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.