Talk about BHAGs.
After 30 years of waiting, the challenge for advocates of a new Fox Cities convention center was to build a new facility delivering more than just a big, boxy building where people get together for conventions and meetings. They needed a big, hairy audacious goal.
If Tuesday’s reveal is any indication, plans for the new Fox Cities Exhibition Center raises the bar for high expectations.
Certainly, the building is highly functional as a convention and meeting space, adding nearly 40,000 square feet of space to the currently available convention facilities at the Radisson Paper Valley hotel.
But it does a lot more. Utilizing the topography of Jones Park, the new facility blends into its surroundings, with much of the facility’s large walls — a necessary requirement for convention space — tucked into the elevation change between downtown and Jones Park. The architecture blends into the downtown, ties into contours of the park and capitalizes on Appleton’s ties to industries such as paper, timber and hydroelectric power.
It also creates the long anticipated link between downtown and the Fox River.
It’s place making.
It’s everything advocates of the convention facility and downtown Appleton have championed for years — nearly 30, to be exact.
“It’s been a long time, but I think everyone will come away thinking this has been worth the wait,” says Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna, a longtime supporter of the new convention center.
During the reveal on Tuesday, Hanna was able to show off some of the FCEC’s amenities, including:
- 30,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space, plus 7,300 square feet of flexible pre-function space that can also serve as an expansion of the exhibition space along with additional meeting rooms and a main floor welcome area.
- 17,000 square feet in an outdoor pedestrian plaza which will provide additional programmable space for much of the year.
- An 82-foot-tall, LED-lit tower. Its symbolism ties to 1882 when the first hydroelectric power station in the country began operating at the Atlas Pulp and Paper mill along the Fox River in Appleton.
The tie into Jones Park and architecture that actually matches the lock system along the Fox River are among some of the other unique features of the building. The exhibition space is actually at park level, 35 feet below street level. The park can be viewed through all glass exterior walls, and the facility will feature a patio with a walkout right into the park, providing a relaxing break or after-hours event space.
“Expo centers are affectionately known as ‘boxes with docks,’ notoriously known for having big blank walls with loading docks,” says Mike Winters of Fentress Architects, the global design firm that designed the FCEC. “To do something more, we wanted to add to the urban amenities. Instead of a rooftop 40 feet in the air, we have it as street level (with Lawrence Street) where it can create space for other events.”
With a vision now in hand, Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Pam Seidl can’t wait for the details to be worked out. The new space will put the Fox Cities on the same playing field as communities such as Green Bay, Madison and La Crosse.
“That’s right in the space we want to be,” Seidl says. “The devil now is the details. Many of these larger groups work five to six years out and we want to get in front of them now. We’ll be selling it while its under construction.”
A groundbreaking is set for Sept. 29. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.
The City of Appleton is renovating Jones Park to be timed with the opening of the FCEC next fall.
The exhibition center will be owned by the City of Appleton and managed by the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel. Construction of the facility will be paid for by a 3 percent hotel room tax collected by hotels in the 10 municipalities participating in the project. The municipalities are: The City of Appleton, Town of Grand Chute, City of Kaukauna, Village of Kimberly, Village of Little Chute, City of Menasha, City of Neenah, Village of Sherwood, Town of Menasha (Village of Fox Crossing) and the Town of Neenah.
The City of Appleton has committed to spending $4 million on the project. Of that, $2 million was spent to purchase the land for the Fox Cities Exhibition Center from Outagamie County. The rest will be spent on road reconstruction on Lawrence, Elm and West Eighth streets. Those streets border the facility, along with Jones Park, and were coming due for reconstruction regardless of whether the exhibition center was built on the site.