Old photos like this one hang in the current Door County Ace Hardware store. Owner Amy (Austad) LaBott said she believed this dates to 1939 or 1940. The store was originally called John’s Hardware, but that building burned down, and the owner went out of business. It then became Door County Hardware, where her grandfather worked before purchasing the building and business in 1939. Submitted.
The hardware store that has anchored the corner of 3rd Avenue and Egg Harbor Road in downtown Sturgeon Bay since the 1930s will soon come to an end.
Amy (Austad) LaBott, a third-generation owner of Door County Ace Hardware, will build a new, larger building on two lots she’s in the process of purchasing from the City of Sturgeon Bay. The adjacent lots are located across the street from McDonald’s on Egg Harbor Road. One is vacant; the other is the past home of Bank Mutual.
“I’m kind of excited to be in that corridor for a couple reasons,” LaBott said. “It’s a traffic corridor; everyone in that area pulls traffic. And our parking downtown isn’t the best. That’s one thing that frustrates our customers and probably inhibits some people from shopping with us.”
The pandemic highlighted the store’s parking and space needs as more people took on home-improvement projects and shopped locally.
“The pandemic did a lot of things, good and bad,” LaBott said. “One of the things is, we see a lot of need for certain things in the community that we can offer with a larger store.”
The current store gained its 14,000 square feet with the purchase of the building next door and two additions, but LaBott has now run out of space.
“We have nowhere to go,” she said.
The Sturgeon Bay Common Council approved the deal with LaBott May 18 after emerging from closed session. It’s based on the same incentives offered to businesses buying lots in the industrial park: $30,000 per acre, with a credit of $4,000 per full-time-equivalent employee, plus a $4,000 credit for each $100,000 in improved assessed real estate value. The employees would be new employees added above the 30 full- and part-time positions Ace currently has.
Marty Olejniczak, Sturgeon Bay Community Development director, said the arrangement requires a floor of $10,000 per acre that the business owner must pay, regardless of the credits, or $20,000 in LaBott’s case. The Common Council approved the contract, indicating it would defer $40,000 of the $60,000 purchase price if the projected credits were met.
Olejniczik said it was a concern for city leaders that the business was moving from a busy downtown corner to another location.
“The question is, what happens to downtown,” he said.
LaBott said she knew her exit would change the dynamic of the corner. She doesn’t have a seller or renter for the space yet, but she’s hoping to minimize the effect of her store’s departure with some ideas to keep the traffic patterns similar.
“I don’t see that as never being a retail store,” she said.
LaBott’s decision is a business move, but the current building and location have sentimental value. Her grandfather, Russell Austad, had managed the hardware store before buying it. Dan Austad, LaBott’s father; and his brother, Tom, became the second-generation owners.
Her father then “somehow convinced me to come back to Sturgeon Bay” in 2000 from Menasha, LaBott said. When her father retired in 2006 and her uncle died in 2010, she bought out their shares. She’s now the corporation’s majority shareholder.
LaBott’s plans aren’t yet finalized, but the building will be larger than her existing space, offer space outside for merchandise and eliminate the nooks and crannies of her existing store that provide a perfect habitat for shoplifters. The long lead times for building materials, however, mean a 2022 move.
“Definitely not this year,” she said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s earlier than later in 2022.”