It’s understandable that one project has grabbed many of the headlines and much of the attention in Oshkosh, but the new Oshkosh Corp. headquarters is just one — albeit large — part of the development picture emerging along the city’s waterfront.
The company broke ground on its new global headquarters in June. The $19 million, four-floor facility on the site of the former Lakeshore Golf Course will house up to 650 employees. It is scheduled to be done by the end of 2019.
“I think the Oshkosh Corp. drum has been beat quite a bit, but I think there’s a spin on it here about how one project can spur on so many other projects,” says Audra Hoy, director of business and economic development for the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp.
The City of Oshkosh is in the process of improving Oshkosh Avenue in anticipation of the increased traffic volume. That project’s completion is expected to bring new office, retail and restaurant development as well as a 112-room hotel.
Also in that vicinity, Bank First National will open a 6,800-square-foot branch on the corner of North Koeller Street and Omro Road, and Casey’s General Store, the fourth-largest convenience store chain in North America, will open a location on Oshkosh Avenue as well as Jackson Street.
On the recreation front, an expansion to the riverwalk on the south side of the Fox River opened in August, and the city aims to open another section to coincide with the Oshkosh Corp. headquarters completion.
Recreation is driving development in the Sawdust District, where the Wisconsin Herd enjoyed a strong inaugural season in 2017-18, selling out 12 out of its 24 home games and racking up a season attendance total of more than 69,000 fans.
“It’s been a tremendous development with the new arena. That’s kind of a kickoff to what’s happening there,” says Rob Kleman, senior vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber is working closely with the city on a long-range plan for the district, and that’s expected to be complete this year. Kleman says much of the Sawdust District is in one of Oshkosh’s two economic opportunity zones. These federal tax law designations are designed to spur development.
Jason White, CEO of GOEDC, says while the full vision for the district is still coming into focus, most, if not all, of the area will transition out of industrial use and into an entertainment, commercial and mixed-use space.
Businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach, he says. Redeveloping the area could require infrastructure improvements and environmental remediation, with the city considering applying for Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields grants.
One site in the district is already being tapped for new development. Bridgeview Holdings has purchased the former Miles Kimball building. Javad Ahmad, a Bridgeview Holdings partner and president and chief operating officer of IT company Oracular, envisions a mixed-use space that could include restaurants and office space for tech companies, including his own.
Areas elsewhere in the downtown continue to thrive as well. Sisters Jenna Golem and Carey Sharpe purchased the historic Oshkosh Eagles Club and renovated the 91-year-old building into an event space and entertainment venue that includes a healthy-eating café and vintage bowling lanes (see this month’s Power Lunch feature).
“When I went through the night they had their initial unveiling, it just well exceeded anything I had in my mind,” White says of the stunning transformation.
The downtown is enjoying a “domino effect” of growth, White says, with The Howard building off the success of the Granary Brewpub, which opened in November 2017. He sees this spurring continued growth in the city’s center.
Attracting the next generation
Art Rathjen, director of strategic initiatives for GOEDC, says talent attraction and retention will remain the No. 1 issue for the region for the foreseeable future. Many companies have raised entry-level wages — in some cases two or three times — to little effect, and there are no untapped resources for workers, he says.
“We already have companies that call Oshkosh home, the Fox Valley home. What is everybody doing within the region of I-41 to make sure those companies stay here?” he says. “It’d be a real crime for some company just to pick up and move somewhere else because they say they could have more workers.”
White says it’s important for companies to continue to grow apprenticeship opportunities and pursue partnerships with educational institutions. He’s also optimistic about the state’s new efforts to recruit veterans returning to civilian life. It’s an especially good fit for Oshkosh, with its connection to the defense industry, he says.
The city and GOEDC continue to work to develop solutions to address barriers to employment, including transportation and child care needs. The GOEDC Foundation recently received a $30,000 Department of Workforce Development grant as part of the Commute to Careers program. It will provide 24/7, on-demand transportation services to workers throughout Winnebago County at little to no cost. In addition, a second-shift daycare center is planned at the site of the former Waite Grass Carpet factory.
GOEDC continues to nurture the startup climate with its Capital Catalyst Fund and Revolving Loan Fund programs. The $250,000 Capital Catalyst Fund offers loans from $10,000 to $100,000 and grants up to $10,000 for startups and companies in high-tech growth sectors. It’s a good fit for companies working in areas such as advanced manufacturing, agriculture, food processing, aviation/aerospace, biosciences and medical research, Hoy says.
The Revolving Loan Fund provides support for companies looking to take their business to the next level. Those expenses could include relocating, purchasing equipment for increased production and facility redevelopment.
Two Capital Catalyst Fund recipients have gone onto notable success. Fifth Ward Brewing Co. in the Sawdust District continues to grow and thrive, and Bee Bella, a maker of handcrafted lip balm, will now be available at Whole Foods Market.
Hoy says these programs help entrepreneurs know support for their ideas is available close to home.
“We want to keep those great ideas here, and the long game on that is workforce,” she says. “If we can keep them here, hopefully it becomes more than just one person. It becomes a family that’s growing in our community.”