Feature – Presto plaza!

Posted on Jul 1, 2013 :: Features
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Renovations on Houdini Plaza are near completion (artist rendering above). City officials hope to enhance the area as a public gathering space.

The Houdini Plaza renovations may have brought orange barrels and loud machines, but the impact to downtown Appleton businesses and the community could be well worth the construction congestion.

Statistics say that for every dollar invested in a public plaza, the economic return is $80, according to Karen Harkness, director of community and economic development for the City of Appleton. If this is true for Houdini Plaza, then the renovations will bring more money to businesses downtown.

“The renovation will position this plaza for a higher level of use by the community, and it will be our community’s front porch and gathering space,” Harkness says.

Before the renovations, Harkness says, the plaza held 55 annual events that brought 300,000 people to the downtown area. What the refurbished plaza will bring is yet to be seen.

“I’m just very excited to see the revitalization and the recapturing of the magic for that plaza,” Harkness says.

“It spurs additional investment, it helps to retain and recruit businesses, it adds to the vibrancy and vitality in that area, it promotes people spending longer lengths of time in the plaza,” she adds.

Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc. (ADI), agrees that the renovations will draw more people to the plaza.

“As people begin to gather they’re going to want to get lunch, they’re going to want to stay longer; they’re going to get a coffee; they’re going to come out and stay,” she says.

The plaza is not just a space, but a place for people to gather, says Stephany.

“A space renovation like this is all about place-making,” she says. “And when you take the time to engage the community and engage the neighbors in the design, you end up with a great product like we will with Houdini Plaza.”

Stephany says that while the raised terrace will be used as a stage for events, tables and chairs will be stationed there during the day, making the space more flexible and allowing for a more conducive place for conversation.

“The plaza was not designed – not renovated for ADI,” Stephany says. “The plaza was renovated for the entire community, so keeping that in mind, we didn’t design it for any one event specifically because it needs to be really flexible space.”

Michele Yahr, marketing manager of Skyline Technologies, thinks the renovations will be a great addition and a common space downtown. She says that she and her co-workers hope the renovations will play as an extension of their office space since the building overlooks the plaza.

“I’m happy the city is investing in the downtown area and it’s really nice to see it growing and expanding, so I think that this is going to be a really great addition,” Yahr says.

But Yahr admits that it needed some work.

“I don’t want to say that it was an eyesore, but it was in rough shape and it was just starting to become beat up,” she says.

According to Stephany, the goal with creating a new icon for downtown is creating an image that leaves a lasting impression.

“[Houdini Plaza] is going to leave that lasting impression of activity that is progressive and clean and safe, and it’s going to help attract businesses as well,” Stephany says.

The first two Summer Concert Series in June were to be held at Jones Park before the renovations were completed, Stephany says. A grand reopening ceremony is tentatively planned for July 3, along with the third Summer Concert series show with RPM.

Yahr says she and her family always attend the Summer Concert Series.

“We have so many talented musicians in the city that I think it’s really a fun time to just sit and relax in the summer.”

Cory Chisel, a native of Appleton and local musician who recently went on tour with Norah Jones, started the Mile of Music event, which will bring 80-plus bands to perform Aug. 8 to 11 throughout downtown Appleton. This event also will use the refurbished Houdini Plaza, as well as bring people in and out of the local businesses.

“As a community, we need to embrace the downtown as a whole district and I think the plaza is going to pull that all together,” Stephany says.