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River Falls economy endures through tough times

September 17, 2009

The recession, which continues to affect local economies throughout the United States, has had a varying impact on River Falls.

Two River Falls-based auto dealerships were hit especially hard. In May, it was announced that Moody’s Chevrolet would lose its General Motors vehicles. More recently, Roen Ford revealed that it too would soon close its doors.

Kinni Coffee and Lounge and the Hot Spot, two former downtown coffee shops, closed this past year as well.

Local sales tax figures for both Pierce and St. Croix counties show a decline in revenue in early 2009. Pierce County saw a 31 percent drop in sales tax revenue in January of this year when compared to January 2008. St. Croix County contended with a nine percent decrease for the same period, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

However, a comparison of figures for the month of June shows significant improvement in local sales. Pierce County had a four percent increase in sales tax revenue in June 2009 versus June 2008. St. Croix County faced only a one percent decrease in sales tax income for this past June, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

Along with the recovered tax figures, new businesses are opening in River Falls. Valerie Lundgren, owner of Karma Gifts, located at 204 South Main St., opened her first shop in June despite the poor economic reports.

“I said to myself many times, why would I open a store when the economy is so bad?” Lundgren said. “But, if I don’t do it now, when will I do it? And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t, but it’ll be a learning experience.”

Lundgren’s views on business in River Falls mirror the statistics.

“Business has exceeded expectations. I think River Falls has embraced its downtown again,” Lundgren said.

Fellow entrepreneurs Carmel and Hardy White, owners of Bubba’s Fried Chicken, opened their eatery out of necessity brought on by a slow economy.

“We couldn’t find jobs in what we’re good at,” Carmel said. “My husband’s always cooked at traveling events. We had nothing to lose.”

Though Bubba’s has only been open for a short time, response to its opening has been positive.

“Business has been beyond what we hoped for,” Carmel said. “We opened July 9, on River Falls Days and it was just crazy. The community has been just wonderful.”

Hardy sums up the couple’s sentiment, “We didn’t have anything, and man, it’s just been a blessing.”

Aside from attracting new businesses, a lively downtown can also draw in prospective residents. River Falls resident Phil Fahey saw a bustling downtown as an attraction when relocating.

“I’ve lived in River Falls for about two years now. I’m originally from Forest Lake, Minn., which is just another suburb. (River Falls) has a more genuine feel about it,” Fahey said. “I can walk downtown and, say, go to the bank and get something to eat. It’s something not every city has.”

The University certainly influences whether or not downtown River Falls can survive.

“Losing the [Kansas City] Chiefs will definitely hurt the city,” Dustin Roatch, a lifelong River Falls resident and 2008 graduate of UWRF, said. “That was a lot of visitors who won’t be coming anymore, but I think some of college kids find the shops downtown sort of cool, so they’ll help again.”

Fred Benson, longtime owner of Lund’s Hardware, one of the city’s oldest businesses, has a theory about what has helped River Falls’ downtown area.

“Last year gas was $4 a gallon,” he said. “It got people shopping smarter. Heightened awareness of shopping locally has us running neck and neck with last year’s sales totals. I think it started with gas prices last year and carried over from one crisis to another.”