OCONTO – Quaffing a beer next to a river on a summer day is enjoyed by many in northeast Wisconsin.
But since most folks don’t own waterfront property, Garrett and Courtney Sowle want to offer that pastime in Oconto to residents and visitors starting next month.
“We (here in the city) don’t have a lot of access points along the river for the public to use, so we want to help with that,” Courtney said.
The couple own a 3-acre property on Holtwood Way at the south edge of Holtwood Campground that they have dubbed “The Yard Park and Bier Garden on the Oconto River.”
They have applied for the land be rezoned from residential to recreational, which is scheduled to be taken up by the Plan Commission on June 14.
The Sowles, who outlined the vision for their property at the May 17 City Council meeting, plan to have The Yard open from 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. Thursday through Sunday.
Beer and wine would be sold from a trailer converted into a mobile bar. Different food trucks would be brought in each week, generally offering cuisine not available in the city, such as gyros and Mexican.
Picnic tables would be under a tent or pergola, with Adirondack chairs and firepits near the riverbank. A dock would be available so boaters could stop by or people could launch kayaks or tubes.
“We want it to be a public access point,” Courtney said.
An area would be set up with several outdoor games, such as ladder-ball, giant Jenga and others that families can enjoy. Another area would have hammocks.
“This is really supposed to be an area for the whole family – for kids, adults – family friendly,” Courtney said. “We have a 7-month-old daughter, and it would be cool just to have something else we could do as a family and bring her too.”
The beverage and food trucks and the tables would be located next to the river in the corner farthest from the nearest neighbor. The Sowles said they’re not planning on having loud music or parties at the site; rather have music from a radio or boom box near the picnic tables, so it shouldn’t be disruptive other residents.
“It wouldn’t be heard all the way across our property, let alone onto neighboring properties,” Courtney said.
Most neighbors they’ve spoken with are supportive, they said, though after the meeting they acknowledge the closest homeowners are not in favor of their plan.
The Sowles also emphasized that their proposal fits in with the city’s 20-Year Community Plan, which notes at various points the importance of creating additional recreation space along the river, offer a wide range of park and recreational activities to residents and visitors, and “invest in the expansion and enhancement of the natural resources areas … that will be attractive to visitors.”
“We just think that it can be great for tourism, which I know is one of the big focuses in the city right now,” Garrett said.
They also showed photos of other beer gardens, including one they frequented when they lived in Philadelphia.
Garrett said some communities seek businesses to provide beer gardens at their municipal parks, including Wauwatosa.
“Green Bay doesn’t really have anything like this, they have things (that are) similar, but not really like this,” Courtney said.
The couple initially purchased the land with the idea of constructing a home, but found that only a small part of the front was buildable, and only if they added enough fill to raise the home several feet to get out of the flood plain.
After buying the property, they spent a lot of time cleaning up the land with help from many friends and family members. The property was full of rats, mice and ticks, and chin-high foliage resulted in seven round bales after it was cut. There is still some clean-up of trees along the shoreline to be done.
Garrett said they wanted to present their proposal publicly so there’s an opportunity to address questions or concerns council members and residents may have ahead of the June 14 Plan Commission and subsequent City Council meeting, where they hope it will be approved.
“Otherwise, if it gets pushed out another month, it’s going to be too late to try to run with this this season,” Courtney said.
In future years, they would plan to have the beer garden open from around May 1 to the end September, depending on the weather.
Garrett, an Oconto native, met Courtney while they were attending the University of Wisconsin-Stout. After graduating in 2016, they were both employed as packaging engineers in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and then back in Milwaukee. After moving back to Oconto two years ago and buying the property, they now work solely in real estate, leasing vacation rental properties in those and other cities, including Oconto.
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Contact Kent Tempus at (920) 431-8226 or [email protected].