Walter S. Rugland is probably best known as the retired COO of AAL, seeing the company through its merger with Lutheran Brotherhood, forming Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. He leads the Board of Directors for ThedaCare, and is chairman of the nonprofit Fox Cities Exhibition Center, Inc. He spoke with Associate Editor Nikki Kallio about why he decided to lead the effort to build a new exhibition center in Appleton.
My dad (Walter L. Rugland) was a community leader who did a lot of work behind the scenes. He always sought out partnerships that could make things happen – the most significant being the Community Foundation (for the Fox Valley Region), but there were others that he worked on in partnership with some other people in the city. And my wife’s father (Gordon Bubolz) obviously did a lot of things in the community. He was more of an all-systems go – he went out and plowed his way through and did stuff.
When I was working on a project at AAL in 1998, it morphed into my retiring from a consulting firm and coming to AAL as the chief operating officer. Because my dad had been president (of AAL, now Thrivent), I knew a lot of history. I was a connection, really, with a historical view. Ten years ago I retired, and in 2008 the mayor asked me to be on a committee (to study the feasibility of an exposition center).
We hired a consultant and he did a major report. Nothing happened, which is what the risk is all the time. And then Mayor (Tim) Hanna created a community coalition, asked me to be chairman and gave me six months to come back with a report.
We said that if we ever were going to do this, we needed to do it soon, because it was much more affordable when interest rates were very low. Because what we were doing was taking revenue from a room tax, primarily, and going to the bond market. So we presented that report the first week in December 2010, and nothing happened for a while, and my concern was that it was going to get stuck in the political area. And of course I was retired – I didn’t have any obligations to do much, so I talked to a few people, John Pfefferle especially, and we decided to set up a not-for-profit. The coalition report confirmed that all we needed was an exhibition building that would turn the (Radisson Paper Valley) hotel into a convention center hotel.
There are 18 communities that have to take action with respect to a room tax increase. We had talked to bond underwriters as to how much money we could get toward building. Right now we’re at the stage of matching up essentially the cost with our capacity to actually fund it.
We (had) an open public meeting on the 17th of May at the Performing Arts Center to let the architects describe the plan and hopefully generate enthusiasm for passing a room tax so we can get it started. We’re also working on final details with the owners of the hotel in terms of how a lease would be structured. Secondly, the negotiations are really wrapping up with the county. The county agreed to release the site to us subject to terms of how much we’d have to pay, and those negotiations are being conducted by the city on our behalf. So the county will sell the property to the city, the city will take care of the infrastructure around it, and then give the property to the Fox Cities Exhibition Center, Inc. That’s the nonprofit that’s going to own it, but it’s going to be leased entirely to the hotel, for a dollar plus taxes.
Over the next 20 years, in terms of present values, (the exhibition center) will generate $100 million of economic value that otherwise would not be here – $8.4 million a year. It will allow us to take this next step forward in terms of a convention center capacity that we don’t really have now. And it’ll not only be a boost to downtown Appleton, it’ll be a boost to a lot of other hotels. It’s really an economic development project.