A thriving community with much to offer
Blessed with Natural Beauty and beaming with Community Spirit; Onalaska continues to impress
With a unique geological history and an awe-inspiring landscape, Onalaska is a vibrant city of 20,000, located in La Crosse County, Wisconsin’s ‘Driftless Region”.
Boasting breathtaking views, and a wide range of natural amenities, this remarkable city is also a hub of regional enterprise, continuously improving quality of life opportunities for residents, and extending an invitation for visitors to come and explore all that Onalaska has to offer.
Onalaska’s Strategic Advantages and Commitment to Community
“The city of Onalaska really has a lot going for it,” touts Mayor Kim Smith.
“Some of the things that are very attractive about the Onalaska community is our proximity to the interstate, we’re located by I- 90. We have multiple exits right within our city limits, where people can easily access our community. We have the bluffs, the driftless region, which people from the flatland think are mountains, but they’re actually formed by running water. We have beautiful hills on one side, and we have the Mississippi River and Lake Onalaska, on the other side.”
“We are nestled right in that sweet spot where we have access to good hiking and recreation, access to water sports, and then we’re close to the city of La Crosse. So, if you did want a little bit more of a downtown feel you don’t have far to go,” she adds.
Infrastructure is a priority for the city, with an emphasis on well-maintained roads and community facilities. “We believe in taking care of what we have, and I think that shows on the outside of our streets and our government buildings, and it also shows in the places that you can’t see, the underground sanitary sewer, the storm sewer, things like that,” notes the mayor.
Onalaska is currently in the process of bringing fiber to all areas of the city, working with internet providers TDS and Metronet to ensure both homes and businesses have access to this crucial utility.
Allocating 58% of the municipal budget to emergency services, Smith highlights that a significant focus is also placed on safety. With a police department, and a combination full-time and part-time fire department, Onalaska is able to deliver a high caliber of professional service without burdening taxpayers excessively.
“If you look at our costs per capita, compared to other surrounding municipalities, we’re really getting a good value for the money that our taxpayers are paying to support that service, with excellent response time and care to the people that they’re serving. We do work cooperatively with our surrounding neighbors. We have some auto aid agreements, we have mutual aid agreements, we’re always working together as best we can to most efficiently respond when the need is there,” she asserts.
Onalaska’s Diverse Housing Development and Thriving Business Community
In terms of development, Katie Aspenson, Planning Director says that the city is seeing monumental housing growth, especially in multi-family units over the past three years. “We recognize that Onalaska is a place where people want to be,” she remarks.
“We recently had a housing study completed and it showed that we need more housing. So, what we’re doing to the best of our ability, is providing that for new residents. With new residents often come new businesses.”
Onalaska has welcomed 3 new subdivisions since 2020, bringing close to 100 new residential units to the community, with commercial opportunities. “Being a landlocked community, we are running out of land. So, getting these new subdivisions is going to be really helpful for the city,” she adds, emphasizing that Onalaska is committed to making the process as easy as possible for developers.
A Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, operating on a pay-as-you-go model was added to Onalaska’s downtown in 2020, bringing 100 new multi-family units to the community, and bringing new life to the city core. Mayor Smith elaborates, “The exciting thing about that project was that it was an area that we had identified as something that really needed to be redeveloped, the city-owned part of the property, and we were able to bring that TIF district to life with a partnership with one of our local developers. And that project was 100% occupied before it was fully completed and has been able to maintain that through its entire life.”
A year later a second TIF was introduced, in an area known as the Fields Development. Aspenson portrays that this is expected to be a $65 million investment, which will include senior housing, townhomes, and commercial and retail options.
Onalaska has also experienced substantial investment on the commercial side. In 2020, $36.5 million was infused into the community, including the establishment of a Holiday Inn, as well as an influx of restaurant, service, and retail industries. 2021 brought an impressive $42.6 million in investment, as enterprises such as Morrie’s Automotive saw the opportunity to establish their presence, alongside development in the healthcare sector, to hospital and clinic facilities.
2022 saw continued growth, with major commercial players like Farm and Fleet, Camping World, and Walmart reinvesting in their facilities, contributing to the continuous enhancement of the Highway 16 retail corridor which is directly connected to Interstate 90. The trend continues into 2023, as the transformation of a vacant Shopko building will see an addition to the existing structure and bring five new tenants to the space.
Along with prominent franchises like Chick Fil A, Scooters Coffee, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Noodles and Company, and Chipotle, which bring visitors into the city from the interstate, Onalaska is also home to a vibrant small business community.
These enterprises contribute to the economy, as well as enrich the character of the city. Aspenson acknowledges, “Onalaska is known for our service industry and retail. Everyone is redeveloping their businesses in our community, it’s very seldom to see people that don’t reinvest. So, we make that process as easy as possible.”
As a delegated community, the city is able to fast-track state plan approvals for contractors, reducing turnaround time. “Time costs money, and we’re trying to reduce that for our businesses,” she says.
A Connected Community, and a Destination of Choice
With an expansive sidewalk program in place, Onalaska effortlessly fulfills the criteria for an exceptional walkability score, embodying a highly connected community. A testament to its allure, A.J. Frels, Executive Director of Explore La Crosse, outlines some of the other qualities that make Onalaska an ideal place to call home, and a destination of choice.
“Onalaska is a great example of how the quality of life for residents and visitors can coexist,” he portrays. “The way the bluffs from the driftless region frame the waterways allows for the topography to attract people that would normally not see that. We offer something naturally that other regions of the area throughout the Midwest cannot. So, it is a very unique and special place to live and visit.”
Great River Landing, a natural haven, and “an outdoor enthusiasts’ playground,” according to Frels, is another popular attraction to the city. Nestled along Onalaska’s waterfront, this area serves as the gateway to the Great River State Trail, affording access to an array of natural wonders, including the Wittenberg Marsh, the Onalaska Spillway, and the Black and Mississippi Rivers.
“We have worked with the city to have a visitor center at that facility. The water access is tremendous. It’s known for outstanding fishing, and the canoe and kayak trail that exists here in Onalaska is a draw for tourists to come and partake in it,” he affirms.
The Omni Center, a sprawling 55,000-square-foot multipurpose facility, stands as a primary cornerstone within the city. It transforms with the seasons, hosting activities ranging from winter’s indoor rink to trade shows, weddings, and roller derby events.
Dan Wick, Onalaska’s Director of Parks and Recreation, underscores the center’s versatility, stating, “We basically can do a little bit of everything in that facility. We draw over 100,000 people annually to the events and things that take place there.” Wick further highlights Onalaska’s portfolio of 26 parks, including those perched atop the scenic bluff tops, providing panoramic views of the community. The city also offers pickleball, tennis, and basketball courts, and multiple playground areas. “Our goal is to give families and visitors a different experience at each park that they go to. That’s been a real fun process that we’ve undertaken and continue to develop in our community,” he recounts.
A New Brand and an Ongoing Commitment
Following a recent rebranding effort, the city of Onalaska has embraced the catchphrase ‘Live Ona,’ inspired by the local custom of fondly referring to the community as Ona. Mayor Smith explains, “We really like the idea of ‘Live Ona, Live Vibrantly’ and that applies to our businesses, to our people, to all of the things going on here.”
Looking forward, Smith underscores the ongoing dedication to providing affordable, top-notch municipal services for residents and businesses. This commitment bolsters Onalaska’s reputation for exceptional quality-of-life amenities and a welcoming, business-friendly community, further solidifying its position as a sought-after destination and a place to call home.
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AT A GLANCE
What: A vibrant community of 20,000 experiencing growth in housing and commercial inventory
Where: La Crosse County, Wisconsin