Whenever I drive south of the city, the giant blue and yellow box towering over I-94 commands my attention. Wisconsin’s first IKEA is scheduled to open on May 16 and is projected to bring more than a million visitors to Oak Creek each year. I wondered how locals felt about the Scandinavian superstore, and how potential shoppers might feel about the rest of Oak Creek. I decided to pound the pavement to find out.
To fuel up before exploring, I made Valentine Café my first stop. I’d heard – from our discerning and well-caffeinated dining critic, Ann Christenson – that the baristas behind the brass-topped counter pour a mean cold brew. The Peruvian blend they used was light and sippable, and I dug Valentine’s white tile and wood storefront. From one of the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows, I had a view of Oak Creek’s newly constructed city square.
After finishing my drink, I wandered over to the new library and civic center. Mayor Dan Bukiewicz gave me a tour, pointing out architectural touches and shaking hands with at least half a dozen staffers along the way. His enthusiasm for the city seemed genuine, as did his excitement about IKEA. “It literally puts us on the map,” he said. “But there are other reasons to visit. For one thing, we’ve got the lake.”
Indeed, I climbed to the top of a craggy bluff above the shoreline, and was struck by how far I could see in any direction, the blue of the sky bleeding into the slightly deeper blue of the lake. I’d heard that city officials were tackling another project, to transform a 250-acre former industrial site along the shore into a sprawling green space.
Historical Society President Larry Rowe told me that Oak Creek was founded in 1955, when a ragtag group of residents fought with Milwaukee over their right to incorporate. “It’s kind of a David and Goliath story,” Rowe said, adding that when he moved to Oak Creek in 1991, his neighbors were farmers, and his property abutted a hayfield. He’s hopeful the new housing and IKEA will equate to more people visiting the historical society, which sponsors re-enactments in summer, including “A Civil War Wife’s Story” (June 10).
Sam Diamantopoulous, who mans Melrose – a restaurant that’s been cranking out classic breakfast dishes for decades – also seems cautiously optimistic about IKEA’s opening. “I’m taking more of a ‘wait and see’ approach,” he said, “but hopefully it’ll bring a lot of people in.”