WAUSAU - You'd never guess it seeing the rows of stocked shelves and fresh paint, but Kevin Korpela's Downtown Grocery store in Wausau once stood as four fire-damaged walls with no roof.
"We had a home to go to, it just wasn't ready yet," Korpela said.
Tuesday morning, Korpela and his wife, Megan Curtes Korpela, showed Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch around their new digs in its old location nearly two years after fire destroyed the grocery on North Third Street. A teenager tossed a lit cigarette in a dumpster behind the building in September 2015, severely damaging the building, which also housed Evolve Fitness and Sweets on Third.
"What a phoenix, truly rising from the ashes," Kleefisch said of the store.
Kleefisch was on hand to celebrate Downtown Grocery's rebirth as part of the statewide "Main Street Day" tour. The Lieutenant Governor's day included stops in Port Washington, La Crosse, and Ashland.
"Main streets across our state are vibrant, are incredibly important economic contributors," Kleefisch said.
Wausau joined the 30-year-old "Wisconsin Main Street" program in 2002. It offers technical support and training to help revitalize downtown, spawning nearly 14,000 jobs since 1987.
"We're looking for long-term commitments from job creators who are eager to succeed not just over five years, and not just over 10 years, but a lifetime of success," Kleefisch said.
The Main Street program's guidance helped bring back downtown grocery, offering tips, suggestions, and guidance throughout the rebuild process.
"We look up to our fellow businesses [downtown] I'm sure just as much as they might look up to us," Curtes Korpela said.
Korpela and his wife temporarily moved the store into the nearby Wausau Center Mall in early 2016, using the building as a life raft while they decided if they wanted to rebuild.
"Number one is to stay positive, not knowing quite how it's going to turn out, but then stage two is realizing that it might take longer than we think," Korpela said.
The city of Wausau offered gap financing when it learned downtown grocery hoped to move back into its original building. Planning, Community, and Economic Development Director Chris Schock says the city took some flack for spending money on a business that might not survive.
"It's really our vocation to help businesses step forward," Schock said. "It's a role that every city plays. We're really proud to play that role."
Later this month, Downtown Grocery will reopen with 15 employees, a little shy of its old total of 21 before the fire. But the store's return also brings in new organic and natural food distributors, like Scott Dixon, who says Downtown Grocery fills a void created since the fire.
"To see that the city's so behind it and it's really vibrant and the store just fits in perfectly with it... They're going to come back better than ever," Dixon said.
Now at 1,100 square feet larger than before, Downtown Grocery expects to be a "Main Street" anchor in Wausau for years to come.
"It is one big team working individually--but yet together--to create an experiential environment that is local and unique," Korpela said.
Korpela tells Newswatch 12 he and his wife hope to reopen the store before the end of August. They expect to soon surpass the 21 original employees.