Riding the waves of change

Sturgeon Bay weathers PJ closing, hotel proposal; Kewaunee looks to harbor project

Posted on May 1, 2016 :: Economic Development , Insight On
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

In The Bourne Identity film, the African leader whom Jason Bourne was trying to assassinate was in the Mediterranean aboard a Palmer Johnson triple decker. Another of the company’s yachts, the Helios 2, appeared in Syriana.

Palmer Johnson had a worldwide reputation as a yacht builder, and its closing last September was a significant loss to Sturgeon Bay.

For many cities the size of Sturgeon Bay, which has just under 10,000 residents, the closing of Palmer Johnson, with 120 employees, would be devastating. Fortunately for the employees and the city, the local economy is strong.

Fincantieri Bay Ship has a backlog of orders and picked up many PJ staff as it worked with the city to take over Palmer Johnson’s buildings and close a few blocks of two city streets to incorporate its site into the larger shipyard.

Out in the city’s expanding industrial park, Therma-Tron-X, which builds and installs industrial custom painting waste water treatment systems, hired several PJ employees. Marine TravelLift also picked up a few, says William Chaudoir, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation.

Old Kmart site revived

Also in Sturgeon Bay, the old Kmart building on Hwy. 57, which has been vacant for years, will finally get some new life. Tractor Supply Co., a $6 billion retail chain, is taking about 30,000 square feet, about a third of the space, and another company is looking to move in, Chaudoir says. Tractor Supply targets both small-scale professional farmers and hobbyists. Forbes reported that the chain bases its sites on the number of tractors and cattle in a location.

Hotel hubbub continues

The most visible, and controversial, area of economic development is the city’s plans for a hotel and possibly a brew pub on the west side waterfront.

The city bought the vacated Door County Cooperative, adjacent to the 73-foot-high old granary that has become something of a city landmark. It cleared the land and relocated utilities so it could provide a clean site for developers. But the concept of a high-end hotel stirred up widespread opposition when the city, without any hearings, announced plans for a five-story hotel which critics said was ugly.

Opponents gathered 1,300 signatures in a petition opposing the plan. A lawsuit in federal court was dismissed but another is pending in state court. Last June the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation rejected a request for a grant of $460,000 to pay for pilings to support the building. It said the developer, Robert Papke, had defaulted on a loan which the WEDC had to write off in 2013, and that he had not provided a detailed budget which was requested numerous times.

“Also, the CDI grant program requires strong community wide support,” according to the WEDC response. “As the hotel is now planned, it does not appear to have community-wide support.”

Renard’s Cheese grows 500 percent

Renard’s Cheese is a quiet business success hiding in plain sight on Hwy. 57 south of the city. The business has grown 500 percent in the last five years since Chris and Ann Renard bought the business from his mother. Growth has been spurred by opening on Sunday, when tourists are heading home. (Get there early if you want to ship Christmas presents; they send out more than 2,000 gift boxes some days — the most popular is Rugged Cheese, five 8. oz. blocks of cheese, a 7-ounce sausage, jam and mustard.)

Kewaunee to develop harbor site

Kewaunee, a town of about 3,000 on Lake Michigan, also has waterfront plans for a 3.5-acre former factory site which it has cleared. The town announced that the property is cleared and vacant, has access to all utilities and is ready for development “by a creative and qualified party.”

Along with money from state and federal governments, the town will invest $4.2 million in the Kewaunee Harbor this year to renovate the lighthouse, install a new harbor wall and build a boardwalk along the northern edge of the property.

Kyle Ellefson, the Kewaunee administrator, says the site has drawn interest from two potential developers, although one has since dropped out. The town is open to all proposals, he adds.

“We don’t have a lot of land like this so we want to make sure the project is the right fit,” Ellefson says. The town would like something multifaceted, he adds, maybe including lodging and a restaurant and bar with outdoor seating where people can go to relax. He thinks the plans could take off in six months or be held for 18 months before attracting new interest.

“We’re dealing with potential here,” Ellefson says.