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Street Cred: A look at College Avenue in Appleton

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APPLETON, Wisc., (WFRV) – Local 5 is looking to capture the vibe of local communities as reflected along a single stretch of roadway.

Perhaps no thoroughfare is more identifiable in Appleton than College Avenue.

Houdini Plaza pays tribute to the legendary magician who claimed this Fox Valley community as his boyhood home even though he came here as a young child.

Appleton is host to what’s considered the largest one-day Oktoberfest.

It features the picturesque campus of Lawrence University and prides itself on being the place to shop and eat and drink. And not necessarily in that order!

Through the generations, the community has shown an uncanny ability to repurpose what’s standing here and now to fit the needs of the times.

I met former Mayor Tim Hanna in front of what used to be the Prange’s Department Store. He used to come here as a kid to visit Santa.

Later it would be transformed into the Children’s Museum and City Hall.

“As fate would have it, my office was Santa’s workshop,” Hanna recalled. “I like to say people still thought they were seeing Santa because they had lists.”

Appleton likes to make history. Back in 1886, it became the home of the first commercially successful electric street railway system. Although the trolley was around much sooner than that.

It’s a favorite topic of retiree Tom McNeely who I met outside the oldest building in the city which is along College Avenue and now houses a soup restaurant.

“I believe it is one of the reasons why College Avenue was made extra wide to accommodate the track,” explained McNeely. “It was a very difficult system. Eventually, they traded to what everybody else had with the single spring system. That’s what they had until the last 1930s.”

Nowadays folks take their classic cars out for a cruise when College Avenue comes alive in lights.

And no visit to College Avenue would be complete without a stop at Cleo’s where every day is a holiday and the Brandy Old Fashioned is rivaled only by the Jack Honey Punch.

“From what I’m told it was a cold war between Cleo and the customers,” says bartender Alicia Andrews. “She left her decorations up a little too long one year. People started giving her a little flack for it. And it turned into fine they’re never coming down and now we have this!”

Nostalgia aside. Appleton’s got major street cred when it comes to stave off competition. In the ’80s when the malls went up and the Bergstrom family stepped in with the construction of Paper Valley Hotel and Convention Center now the Red Lion.

“It was a perfect example of businesses coming together And we didn’t go into as deep a decline as most,” said Hanna.

And as the ’90s rolled into the new millennium, the historic charitable gift from Thrivent for Lutherans made the Performing Arts Center a reality. More recently, tax incentives for housing developers.

“It means walkability,” says Jennifer Stephany, Executive Director, Appleton Downtown Incorporated. “It’s being able to walk to work around the district, cleanliness safety and it means events.”

And as College Avenue emerges from the pandemic the farmer’s market and Mile of Music are expected to beckon the crowds once again.

“The vision is to become the original music mecca in the entire country,” says Mile of Music organizer Dave Willems. “We want to be the home for original music artists who say I want to play because the crowds are respectful and it’s a cool vibe that we want to be a part of. I refer to that as we’re just this far away from being six feet together. Instead of six feet apart.”

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