ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – Downtowns get new look – Skylines changing in Appleton, Little Chute and Neenah

Posted on Sep 1, 2012 :: Economic Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

What a difference a few years can make.

When Riverside Papers closed its mill in the flats along the Fox River in downtown Appleton, it joined two other former industrial sites to sit idle. Now, all three sites are in various stages of redevelopment and Karen Harkness, director of community development for the City of Appleton, couldn’t be happier.

“We’ve been afforded a unique opportunity to create a new neighborhood along the river,” she says. “It’s not often you get to do something like this, and it’s very exciting.”

At the former Riverside Papers, Eagle Flats – a mixed-used development – has taken shape. This past summer, residents from Appleton Housing Authority’s Washington Place moved into River Walk Place, which has 70 affordable senior housing units.

“It was so wonderful to see the residents moving in. Many had tears in their eyes and were so excited,” says Harkness, adding that residents enjoy the riverfront views as well as the new building’s amenities.

River Walk Place joined The Landing, a 54-unit apartment complex that provides housing to low- and middle-income residents, which opened last spring. The Landing is already full.

Both projects were built using $16 million in Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority tax credits. Now that the residential buildings are in place, developers hope to add retail and commercial space to the site.

“There are so many wonderful things about this project, but one great aspect is that the riverfront is being returned to public use again,” Harkness says.

Down the river, RiverHeath developers recently completed construction on three high-end townhomes, one of which has already been sold. Plans call to add a 26-unit apartment complex to the site beneath the College Avenue bridge and a public trail.

Across the river on the site of the former Foremost Foods, the city is preparing to ask developers to submit requests for proposals about what they would like to do with the eight-acre site, which is zoned for multi-family development.

“It’s just amazing to see what’s happening along the riverfront,” Harkness says.

The riverfront isn’t the only project keeping Harkness busy. The city is also preparing for construction to begin this fall on reconstructing Houdini Plaza in downtown Appleton. The city is spending $1.5 million to rebuild the square, which opened in 1984. Those funds will be combined with $500,000 being raised in private donations for the project. So far, $360,000 has been pledged to redo what Harkness calls “downtown Appleton’s front door.”

“It’s an area that was in desperate need of being redeveloped and will really enhance the downtown,” she says.

Away from the city’s center, Appleton is seeing some activity in its industrial and business parks after a few quiet years. In South Point Commerce Park on the city’s southeast side, Flair Flexible Packaging recently purchased 1.44 acres – the first parcel of land sold in the city’s industrial parks since 2008.

“We have seen a real pop in growth in the industrial park as companies are looking to add employees and space,” Harkness says. “Businesses have been sitting on a lot of capital and that bodes well for the future as they now start spending it.”

Dutch treat

Little Chute’s downtown has a new look thanks to a 100-foot-tall windmill designed and made in the Netherlands that celebrates the city’s Dutch heritage. This summer, Boldt Construction finished assembling the windmill and is now working on the neighboring visitor center. The Van Asten Visitor Center will feature exhibits on the history of the area’s Dutch settlements.

Flour ground by the working windmill will be sold from a gift ship in the visitor center, says Robin Dekker, executive director of Little Chute Windmill Inc., a nonprofit organization that raised the funds for the project. The windmill and center, which will open next spring, are designed to bring tourists to the area as well as educate people about the area’s Dutch heritage, she adds.

Across the Fox River, Kimberly’s skyline also changed this past summer as the smokestacks at the former New Page Paper Mill were demolished. Last year, American Iron & Metal Co., a Montreal-based scrap metal specialist, bought the former mill, which New Page closed in 2008.

American Iron & Metal plans to redevelop the property, which could include riverfront condos and multi-tenant housing.

Neenah projects move ahead

Another former paper mill site in the Fox Cities – the former Glatfelter Paper Mill in Neenah – continues its redevelopment. Plexus Corp. opened its new $20 million headquarters in 2010 and Affinity Health System is currently building a $9 million clinic on the site. Plexus also has plans to build a $7 million data and development center in front of its corporate headquarters next year.

Across the street, a group of developers is now proposing an office and retail development worth between $3 million and $4 million. Developers Terry Bomier and Steve Winter, working together as BTS Properties, would like to construct two buildings on the site with a total of 20,000 square feet. To make that project possible, the city needs to demolish two vacant buildings and the developers would need to acquire Under the Dome Sports Bar & Grill.

Bomier says they’re working with a tenant who wants to move to the site and that he hopes construction will begin next spring. “This is a project we’re excited about and we hope to have office space as well as restaurant space in the buildings,” he says. “It will be a great addition to the area, which already has the Plexus headquarters and the Affinity clinic going in.”

Chris Haese, Neenah’s director of community development and assessments, says the downtown has a nice mix of office buildings and retail businesses and that the two support each other. “We’ve seen a real change in our downtown make-up going from manufacturing and retail to service and professional industries and retail, and it’s working well,” he says. “When you see a new office building go up, it’s nice to see a restaurant go in to help serve those people.”

Away from the downtown, Plexus is building the city’s largest building – a $50 million manufacturing facility on Schultz Drive in the Neenah Industrial Park. “That’s a huge project for us,” Haese says. “Not only does it help retain jobs here in the community, there’s potential to bring more jobs in.”

Crews are already working on the 410,000-square-foot building, which will replace two leased sites. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2013.

The City of Neenah will also gain a new grocery store by the end of the year when Green Bay-based Festival Foods opens a 74,000-square-foot store on S. Green Bay Road off of U.S. 41. The company tore down a vacant Pick & Save (that grocer moved to a new building in 2008 across the way in the Fox Point Plaza) to put up its new store. The store expects to employ the equivalent of 125 full-time employees.

“They took a building that was in foreclosure and are turning it into something of value,” Haese says. “We’ve been hearing for a long time that people wanted a Festival Foods to come to our community. It not only fulfills that need, but it adds jobs and adds to the tax base.”

A CLOSER LOOK

FVTC expansion

Since voters approved a $66.5 million referendum in April allowing Fox Valley Technical College to move ahead on several new projects, crews with Miron Construction are keeping busy. The projects allow the college to deal with increasing enrollments, crowded facilities and the growing need for a skilled and trained workforce.

The largest of the seven projects associated with the referendum is a $32.5 million public safety training center that will be built on 74 acres of leased land at the Outagamie County Regional Airport in Greenville. The center is expected to open in 2014.

At the main campus in Grand Chute, work has already started on several projects. An $11.9 million health simulation technology center and $3.5 million agriculture center will open next fall, while a $7.4 million student success center and a $6.2 million transportation center expansion are slated to open in the fall of 2014.

Outside of the Fox Cities, the referendum included buying land next to Advanced Manufacturing Center in Oshkosh and to purchase and expand the Chilton Regional Center.

A CLOSER LOOK

Convention center moving forward

Although the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel – a key partner in plans to build a convention and expo center in downtown Appleton – is in receivership, Karen Harkness, the city’s director of community development, remains optimistic the project will get done.

“The receivership is a minor bump in the road. All partners have agreed they want to keep moving forward,” she says.

Under plans put together by the Fox Cities Exhibition Center, Inc., the Radisson would manage the center, which will cost an estimated $20 million to build.

Harkness says the city of Appleton is working with Outagamie County to purchase land adjacent to Jones Park where the convention center will be located. In addition, work continues behind the scenes with the area’s municipalities about bringing forward a proposal to add a hotel tax, which would help fund the project.

“This is a project that is still on and one we’re committed to working on,” Harkness says. “The center will be a tremendous asset to the entire Fox Cities.”

A 2010 report found that an expo center would bring an estimated $8.4 million into the community each year.

ON THE WEB

Little Chute Windmill Inc.: www.littlechutewindmill.org

Eagle Flats: www.appletoneagleflats.com

City of Neenah: www.ci.neenah.wi.us

Fox Cities Convention & Expo Center: http://fcexhibitioncenter.com/