First Impressions

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Lake Mills residents give their 

‘First Impressions’ of Prairie du Chien

By Ted Pennekamp


On the evening of Thursday, May 21, the public was able to attend a “First Impressions” meeting at City Hall in which members of a delegation from Lake Mills expressed what their impressions were of Prairie du Chien, after having visited on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 2014. On May 27, a similar delegation from Prairie du Chien went to Lake Mills to also give comments about what that city does well and what it could improve upon. Prairie du Chien representatives made an unannounced visit to Lake Mills in November of 2014.

Participants in the First Impressions Program become “secret shoppers” for the day to discover what they can about a similar community. The First Impressions Program helps communities learn about existing strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of the first-time visitor. The results from a First Impressions visit can serve as the basis for community action and as a way to document changes in the community over time.

“Those present (at the May 21 Prairie du Chien meeting) showed a real sincere concern about some of the issues raised from the Lake Mills report,” said Prairie du Chien City Administrator Aaron Kramer. “You could definitely see the seed of some ideas and initiatives being planted based on the questions and comments of the attendees. Now, we have to see if the seeds bloom and bear fruit in the short-term and long-term. Overall, I think it has been a very educational and enlightening exercise for Prairie du Chien.”

Upon first arriving in Prairie du Chien, the 13 visitors from Lake Mills checked out all of the gateways into the city. They far and away liked the entrance into the city from Iowa the best and said that the Tourist Information/Chamber of Commerce Center was really nice, was staffed with friendly and helpful people and had a lot of information about Prairie du Chien and the surrounding area. The Lake Mills people were less impressed with entrances via Highway 27, Highway 18 from the south and Highway 35 from the north. Big billboards, lots of signs, a long stretch of big and small box businesses which seemed to go on forever and not much small town character were noted as first impressions upon entering the community. It was also noted that there was a lack of a really nice “Welcome to Prairie du Chien” sign. Construction on Marquette Road at that time also made it hard to navigate, they said. 

The visitors also noted that the bluffs were very nice and that the downtown area, the county buildings, the schools and City Hall appeared very nice. They said that directional signage could have been better and a lot of one-way streets made it difficult to get around. They said that nice public facilities included the skate park, the outdoor swimming pool and the indoor swimming pool at Hoffman Hall. 

The Lake Mills visitors were also very impressed with the abundance of well-maintained historic sites and, of course, the Mississippi River. It was noted that most boat landings appeared to be very nice, with some appearing to be a bit steep.

Good railroad access, river port and airport are substantial local transportation advantages, they said. 

The visitors said that there was a general lack of signs pointing out where to find the schools, county buildings and some historic sites. Large, old “abandoned” buildings (Wyalusing Academy and Satter Building) were also noted. They said that the streets were fair and the sidewalks were obviously not a priority.

Numerous other topics about the strengths and weaknesses of Prairie du Chien were also brought up. A report is available on the city of Prairie du Chien website,

“This will provide a unique and intriguing opportunity for us to see what others view as the positives and negatives of the community,” said City Administrator Kramer in a report prior to the May 21 meeting. “I believe it will also serve as a worthy catalyst for moving forward on community improvement and enhancement projects. I think you will likely see some of the suggestions and recommendations showing up on future Council agendas, perhaps even the School Board and other citywide organizations. The initial feedback we have already received has been very helpful.”

“Our Lake Mills First Impressions team really enjoyed sneaking a peek into Prairie du Chien everyday life. We agreed that the surrounding natural beauty, including the Mississippi River and the bluffs combined with Prairie du Chien’s rich history all combine to make the area the perfect family vacation destination, not to mention a great place to work and live,” said Lake Mills Main Street Coordinator Randy Otto in a report prior to the May 21 meeting. “But listening to the visiting community’s observations with an open mind is only part of the overall process. Lake Mills had prior experience with the First Impressions Program: a First Impressions exchange with Random Lake, Wis. 15 years ago. Our team at that time learned what we discovered in Random Lake could also add to our to-do list. The upshot of it all is in developing an action plan which incorporates those new ideas garnered from all sources of observation into beneficial projects. The Lake Mills Main Street Program, along with City Government and all of her citizens look forward to continuing the splendid dialog begun with Prairie du Chien.”

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