Lt. Gov. Rodriguez supports Shop Small Shop Local in Merrill
BY TINA L. SCOTT
Wisconsin’s Lieutenant Governor Sara Rodriguez visited Merrill on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, as part of support for the state’s Shop Small Shop Local campaign to promote shopping in small, locally-owned businesses, particularly during the holiday season. The timeframe between Thanksgiving and Christmas typically sees a large rise in retail spending as shoppers purchase Christmas gifts for family and friends, and everyone in Merrill benefits when those shopping dollars stay local.
“These are your neighbors who own these small businesses,” Lt. Gov. Rodriguez said during her visit. “That’s what you’re spending your money on. You’re making sure these owners can put their kid in ballet lessons—that they can pay for soccer. That’s what your dollars are going for. Those dollars stay local.”
Dollars spent in Merrill at locally-owned businesses are reinvested locally—at other local businesses, in donations to local churches and charitable organizations, in supporting community programs—which makes it a win-win for everyone in Merrill.
Rodriguez started her Merrill visit with a stop at Auntie Ray’s Coffee House where she purchased a hot coffee and chatted with owner Rachel Travis about Travis being the youngest recipient of a Main Street Bounceback Grant in the state at age 18. “I love how it was so flexible … people were able to use it for what they needed,” Rodriguez said after asking Travis how she had invested the funds in her business. Travis talked with Rodriguez about the support she has from her parents and their help in establishing and running the business. She also told Rodriguez Auntie Ray’s has been doing so well they recently expanded into the entirety of the former Skipper’s Restaurant space, more than tripling their guest seating indoors and providing for outdoor seating seasonally, as well.
The next stop on the shopping tour was Ana Blair’s Boutique where Rodriguez browsed and purchased a few small gifts. She talked with owner Ashley Dayton about balancing running a business with motherhood and they chatted about their kids and families. Rodriguez also inquired about where Dayton sources her merchandise for the boutique. “I try to source as much as possible from Wisconsin,” Dayton said, pointing out the merchandise in the store she finds within the state and detailing why she loves some of the products so much.
From First Street over to Main Street, the Lt. Gov. walked and talked with Merrill Mayor Steve Hass, Executive Director of the Merrill Area Chamber of Commerce Clyde Nelson, and Marketing Director for the Chamber Sarah Sturm, who were all there to take Rodriguez on a mini tour of some of Merrill’s locally-owned small retail businesses.
The group stopped in at the Polka-Dotted Pie to visit with owners Jennifer Schlaefer and Wendy Woller who shared that their business had started in a commercial kitchen in the basement of their Wausau home years prior, before they opened their downtown retail location in Merrill about three years ago. Rodriguez inquired how the two had marketed their bakery previously and they explained Facebook, Farmers Markets, and delivering trucks full of pies were the grassroots beginnings of the business. The three talked about the challenges of sustaining the new bakery through COVID and how the Polka-Dotted Pie is thriving today. Rodriguez purchased a caramel pecan roll to take home for her husband before heading to her next stop. [And I’m pretty sure I saw Eric from her security detail purchase a pie before he left the bakery, as well.]
NAPA Auto Parts was next on the itinerary, and owner Greg Brandenburg shared the evolution of the business and transition into the NAPA branded store it is now. When learning he was the second generation, Rodriguez inquired if he anticipates a third generation will take on ownership eventually. Brandenburg said he is hopeful, as his two sons are currently very much involved in the business, with one working at the Merrill store and the other at their second store in Tomahawk.
The final retail stop on the mini-tour was Courthouse Furniture. Rodriguez met and visited with co-owner Noel Kusserow at their location on the north side of E. Main Street where Noel explained he and his brother, Tony Kusserow, are second generation owners of the business. He explained their parents started the business in 1987 and the two brothers bought their parents out in 2002. Here, too, Rodriguez was keenly interested in where the business sourced its merchandise and Noel highlighted some of the furniture that is sourced from Amish builders in Ohio and other lines from Gilman, Wis., adding that they like to purchase locally as much as possible.
They also discussed recent remodeling to one room of the business and Courtside’s second location across the street now devoted to bedding. Rodriguez went across to see the newest location and talk with co-owner Tony, as well.
In conversations with Chamber representatives and Mayor Hass, as well as with local business owners, a wide range of topics were covered in a very short timeframe. From the City’s $10,000 incentives to increase homebuilding in Merrill, multi-unit apartment complexes recently built and currently being constructed in the city to address housing shortages … to child care shortages and creative conversations in progress to try to address that issue … to the coop business model being used in some communities to address critical community issues … to Rodriguez commenting that the state’s unemployment rate is at an all-time low … the 75 minutes Rodriguez spent in downtown Merrill gave her some insight into what our community is doing to address challenges and grow beyond them, working together. And the Lt. Governor may have crossed a couple of things off her Christmas shopping list along the way, as well.