Great expectations

Long-awaited exhibition center poised to change face of downtown Appleton

Posted on Dec 1, 2016 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

With ground broken at the end of September, it’s hard to believe that a vision 30 years in the making will come to fruition in about a year’s time.

Karen Harkness, director of community development for the City of Appleton, realizes that the timeline for the Fox Cities Exhibition Center is ambitious, but she’s confident that the project will finish on schedule.

“We are on target to have it substantially completed by fall of 2017,” Harkness says, drawing a comparison to the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, which also went up quickly.

Harkness expects that the 30,000-square-foot center, which is integrated into Jones Park, will eventually bring in about $6.5 million in new economic development annually. She projects it will take three years to ramp up to that point.

Inquiries about booking the facility have already begun trickling in, Harkness says, and groups tend to book out convention centers three to seven years in advance. “I think you’ll see a wide variety of corporations and organizations that choose to utilize this facility.”

More good news: the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel will manage the facility, and the City of Appleton won’t have to pay a fee. “It’s a phenomenal management agreement,” Harkness says.

Harkness believes the center will make a positive impact not just for Appleton but for all 10 municipalities that united to create a hotel room tax to fund the project.

“If you have an urban core, a downtown, that is vibrant and vital, it tends to raise the areas around it,” she says.

Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc., echoes that optimism, saying major developments like this tend to create a domino effect of improvements, as was the case with the PAC.

“We’re excited about what it’s going to bring for downtown,” she says. “It’s going to elevate us.”

Josh Dukelow, chair of Creative Downtown Appleton and ADI board member, is excited for the potential the facility brings. “Investments in things like an exhibition center expand our ability to bring people to this community because now instead of limiting our conferences to 1,000 attendees, we can go to 5,000 attendees,” he says.

One piece of the puzzle

While the exhibition center may be the focal point right now, it’s but one component of the future of downtown.

ADI’s Stephany says her organization has spent much of 2016 focusing on the downtown chapter of the City of Appleton’s Comprehensive Plan. “It’s the most detailed plan since I’ve been here,” she says. “And now it’s the implementation. What’s it going to take to accomplish this?”

Strategizing to answer that question will take up much of Stephany’s time until the plan goes to the city council for final approval in March.

Stephany sees the need for residential development as a top priority.

“Residential is critical to the development of any downtown district, and I feel like we’ve been a little behind,” she says.

The plan estimates that downtown Appleton can absorb, conservatively, 385 units of multi-family rental housing throughout the course of the next five years. It calls for a mix of multifamily and condo housing with a focus north of College Avenue.

“I think that’s one of our assets, that we have a growth area,” Stephany says, noting that some downtowns are landlocked, but that’s not the case in Appleton.

Results of the market study indicate strong interest in downtown living options, with 53 percent of respondents saying they would consider living downtown. The plan goes on to state that increasing the residential base in this arena would positively impact retailers, restaurants and service-related businesses.

“There’s a compelling need for downtown housing,” Harkness agrees, also citing the need for additional office space, which is at 90 percent capacity.

Of course, with growth comes challenges, and for Stephany, one issue jumps to the forefront.

“The P word — it’s always parking,” she says. “I don’t care what community you’re in, parking is always a challenge in an urban district.”

Stephany says one of the biggest issues is that people are not quite ready to embrace Appleton as an urban environment. In Milwaukee, she observes, no one would think twice about paying a premium for parking and having to walk a few blocks.

Here, it’s another story. People still expect parking that’s cheap, easy and close. New developments will have to account for that, she says, especially with a number of parking structures nearing the end of their life expectancy.

Also, with more people living downtown comes a need for more amenities, with a grocery store at the top of that list, Stephany says, joking that Trader Joe’s has taken out a restraining order against her inquiries.

“It’s the chicken and the egg thing,” she explains. You need density to support amenities and amenities to support density.

‘The coolest product in the country’

Dukelow sees the future of downtown this way: “If you want to grow a company, you can focus on growing sales, or you can make the coolest product, and people will come to you,” he says. “We want to make Appleton the coolest product in the country.”

He draws inspiration from Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces. Kent advocates for creative place making, which Dukelow describes as a way to activate public spaces, often using the power of public art.

“It’s a way to take a business district or some other destination and really enhance it with creative, engaging, artistic, colorful, whimsical elements,” he says.

Dukelow, a WHBY radio host and former mayoral candidate, points to Houdini Plaza as one example. It looked great, he said, but it often sat empty.

His organization noticed that the only seating available was uncomfortable, backless fixed benches. “They were more designed to prevent skateboarders than to enhance sitting,” he says.

Spending a couple hundred dollars on some colorful Adirondack chairs changed everything. “It was like night and day,” and people quickly began to flock to the space to eat lunch and hold meetings, all because seating became available.

“For $300 a year for chairs, it’s an easy, cheap way of activating that space,” he says, explaining that place making is all about lighter, quicker and cheaper as opposed to long and expensive projects.

Art takes center stage in Dukelow’s vision for downtown. “I believe artists have and always will be the vanguard,” he says.

That pays dividends, he says. Growing the creative economy attracts more people and in turn makes it easier for industrial and other employers to attract employees.

Allowing people to “leave their fingerprints on the city” translates to staying power, he says. Consider the downtown traffic control boxes. Appleton middle and high school students designed the art that now adorns the once-mundane fixtures.

“Now we’ve got 18 campuses throughout downtown sharing this colorful, welcoming, engaging message about diversity in our community,” Dukelow says.

The best part? He believes that active investment in the community means those kids will be more likely to want to stay or return to the area. “You want people to see their role in this.”