Fringe Benefits

Posted on Feb 1, 2010 :: Development
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Events like ArtStreet (top) draw tens of thousands of people to downtown Green Bay.

Green Bay’s long-awaited Watermark project is still on hold – yet another victim of the commercial credit crunch. That centerpiece of downtown riverfront development holds the key to the city’s core health, but an active event schedule downtown is keeping attention focused there, and developer John Vetter says he’s optimistic that financing is nearing completion on Watermark. At the same time, two public projects on the city’s perimeter ensure that Green Bay is not standing still.

On the city’s west side, Military Avenue will get a long-overdue facelift in 2010, with major reconstruction from Dousman Street south to Langlade Street. The $10 million project, which will include utility upgrades, landscaping and street redesign, is being undertaken with the help of federal funds.

“That will have a big impact on the business corridor and lead to significant redevelopment along that corridor,” says Derek Lord, economic development director for the city. Lord adds that the city will hire a consultant “to help draft a vision and marketing strategy for Military Avenue, to see what kind of development is possible.”

The aging street has been the city’s western business corridor for decades, “but it’s become evident that we have to do something to make it more vibrant and attractive for development,” says Lord.

On the northeast side, the U.S. government will build a $50 million 160,000-square-foot Veterans Administration Clinic on Green Bay’s northeast side, creating several hundred construction jobs during the project and more than 200 permanent staff positions. Bids are expected to be awarded this year, with groundbreaking before year’s end and project completion by 2012.

Also on the northeast side, the city’s I-43 Business Park is near capacity, with a major corporate expansion just completed. Schwabe North America, the parent company of Green Bay-based Enzymatic Therapy, announced late last year that it was moving its Utah operations to Green Bay, with a $10 million 100,000-square-foot expansion and facility upgrade in the business park. The state Department of Commerce provided $900,000 in tax credits and loans to support the expansion, which is expected to create more than 100 jobs and retain nearly 300.

While waiting for the Watermark project to gear up, the downtown area has several other initiatives in various stages of progress. The City Deck riverfront project is expected to move into Phase II this year, with the construction of piers at the ends of Cherry and Pine streets.

The former Washington Commons (and before that Port Plaza) mall – once the centerpiece of downtown redevelopment – may be demolished soon to make way for potential new development on the seven-acre site.

“We hope to have a plan for the redevelopment of the site completed in 2010, and this may include all or partial demolition of the existing structure,” says Lord.

Meanwhile, three major downtown projects are under study and if all come to fruition, the city would have an expanded convention center and federal courthouse, as well as a restored luxury hotel.

Federal Judge William Griesbach is recommending that the federal government buy the former Kellogg Library building, where Griesbach currently holds court, and expand the building to provide adequate space. He considers that preferable to waiting more than 10 years for a new courthouse.

The city is looking to expand the KI Convention Center to attract more convention visitors downtown. The current convention center, which has about 44,000 square feet of space, is attached to the Hotel Sierra. One proposal would expand the convention center westward toward the Holiday Inn on the Fox River.

The city is also hoping to take the former Hotel Northland building on Adams Street and return it to its former elegance as one of Wisconsin’s premier hotels. For the past three decades, it has operated as Port Plaza Towers – an affordable housing facility. However, its owners are building two new structures to house current and future tenants, leaving the Northland available for restoration and redevelopment. While no plans have been finalized for the site, Lord says its highest and best use is probably as a hotel – particularly if the convention center is expanded and access is improved by the removal of the mall structure.

Across the river in the burgeoning On Broadway District, the Larson Green redevelopment has seen some progress, with the Green Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau occupying the key corner location at Broadway and Dousman, but On Broadway Inc. President Greg Larson says the real growth has been in the consistent integration of new businesses among the street’s historic buildings. Since On Broadway was created in 1995, he notes, the district has seen a net growth of 85 businesses and more than 700 new jobs and tripled its tax base to $75 million. On Broadway was named a Great American Main Street in 2009.

“We’ve had a lot of variety in the kinds of businesses that locate here and that’s really made it an interesting mix,” says Naletta Burr, a former On Broadway executive director and now director of Business and Community Development/Planning at Dimension IV, which has its architectural offices in the district.

The weekly Farmer’s Market along Broadway has become one of the city’s most popular draws from spring through fall, and Larson credits that with helping to bring people to the district who might still think of Broadway the way it was 16 years ago, lined with bars and shuttered storefronts.

Larson and Burr are also excited about the possibility that the Green Bay Bullfrogs baseball team would like to build a $16 million multi-use stadium and entertainment venue along Broadway, on the west bank of the river, just north of Mason Street. That would provide a southern anchor for the Broadway District, according to Larson and Burr. Along with Larson Green at the north end, the two projects “would be great bookends for the district,” says Larson.

Bullfrogs owner Jeff Royle and a group of investors are completing a feasibility study on developing the 13-acre brownfield site into a venue that would accommodate baseball and other events.

On Broadway recently hired a new executive director, Christopher Naumann – an architect and Green Bay native who has worked in the Minneapolis area for several years in development and urban planning.

While acknowledging that the Watermark project is “a critical component for downtown waterfront development,” Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay Inc., says bricks-and-mortar construction is only part of the story of downtown revitalization.

“We really believe that this year will be a banner year for events that will help activate the downtown in general and the City Deck in particular,” says Mirkes.
Besides the Wednesday and Saturday farmer’s markets, downtown will feature Friday evening entertainment on the City Deck and Wednesday lunchtime events throughout the summer. Events like ArtStreet, the Fireworks on the Fox and the Tall Ships Festival will draw thousands to downtown.

“We’re seeing that more activity in the downtown area translates to more interest and more recognition that there’s something going on here,” says Mirkes.

Paul Jadin, former Green Bay mayor and now president of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, says his organization is focused on development throughout the community and across Brown County. Nonetheless, he says, what happens within the city and within the downtown is critical to what happens in other parts of the county. “You need to have a healthy core,” says Jadin.

That’s part of the reason Jadin and his staff relocated to the corner of Broadway and Dousman as part of the first phase of development in the Larson Green project. Larson Green is designed to replace the former Larson canning factory with new development – sometimes in the existing structures and sometimes with new structures replacing the old.

“Broadway is a very key component to what needs to happen for the city to grow,” says Jadin. “We believe development should pick up in Larson Green as we head into summer.”

Jadin agrees that the city’s efforts to spur growth downtown and elsewhere is important, and he also believes several projects will get underway in 2010 and 2011, but he notes that unless the credit markets and developers are ready to invest in downtown, public sector activity can only accomplish so much.

“At the end of the day,” says Jadin, “it’s the private sector that has to see the potential reward and make the decision to develop a downtown.”