Growth Curve

Posted on Jul 1, 2009 :: Development
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau

Millions of dollars in federal stimulus money has yet to find its way to Brown County, but the local economy has gotten a fair amount of stimulus from other sources, including private investment and state transportation funds. Among the noteworthy private stimuli applied in the past year:

Fincantieri Marine Group, the company formed to manage Marinette Marine, Bay Shipbuilding, Cleveland Ship Repair and the newly formed ACE Marine, established its North American headquarters in Green Bay.

ACE Marine, which opened late last year in Green Bay, will produce medium response boats for the U.S. Coast Guard. Once production is underway, the facility is expected to employ at least 100.

After Germany’s Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals acquired Green Bay-based Enzymatic Therapy in late 2008, there was some local concern about the future of the company, but in April Schwabe North America announced that it was combining Enzymatic Therapy and Utah-based Nature’s Way into one headquarters in Green Bay. The move is expected to add up to 150 jobs in Brown County.

Greenwood Fuels, which will produce high-BTU energy pellets from pulp sludge – a waste product from the paper industry – began operations in June. The company invested approximately $15 million to establish the facility on Green Bay’s Liberty Street, the site of the former Bark River culvert facility.

FEECO International is leading a consortium of companies and public agencies in the Brown County Waste Transformation Initiative, a project that proposes to turn animal and human waste into commercial-grade fertilizer. FEECO already produces the equipment and technology to build large-scale transformation plants internationally, producing fertilizer from animal manure, but the Brown County initiative will do so on a smaller scale and use both human and animal waste. The consortium, which includes the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, the De Pere Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Brown County Land and Conservation Department, as well as private entities such as Sanimax, American Foods Group, JBS Packerland and Ag Ventures, raised $450,000 for field trials. The trial project produced 6,000 pounds of fertilizer, which is being used on area farm fields this season. If the trials are successful, says Fred Monique, economic development director for the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, production is likely to ramp up for next year.

The slowdown in the economy and the tightening of the credit market has slowed progress on the Watermark Project in downtown Green Bay. Developer John Vetter still hopes to have the project moving this year, but that will depend in large part on private lenders. The City of Green Bay already approved $3.5 million in loans to help move the project forward and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority is also providing a tax credit loan for the project.

The city’s downtown got a big boost in June when APAC Customer Services announced it was adding 450 jobs to its call center in the Baylake City Center, bringing its total downtown workforce to more than 1,000. The company had cut 95 jobs at the center in April, so last month’s news was especially welcome, not only to downtown but to the county as a whole. More than 200 call center jobs were lost when Eastbay announced in May that it was closing down its Allouez facility, but local officials now believe many of those workers will help fill APAC’s increased workforce.

In addition, the $12 million City Deck boardwalk project is underway, with Phase 1 – running from Main Street to Walnut Street – due to be completed this fall. Vetter says the project is a key element in activating the riverfront and encouraging more downtown development.

American Foods Group announced last year that it will expand its facilities in Green Bay and locate its executive offices downtown, adding 60 people to the downtown workforce.

Office space in downtown Green Bay is at 95 percent occupancy, says Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay Inc., and the continuing growth of the downtown workforce, which now numbers more than 11,000, is likely to spur additional retail and residential development.

“Broadway Street already offers a nice cross-section of boutique retail stores, and we’re hoping to see more on the east side as well, with the completion of the retail space on the first floor of the Cherry Street ramp,” says Mirkes.

Elsewhere in the city, a $13 million street reconstruction project on Military Avenue, beginning next year, will undoubtedly cause short-term headaches for businesses along one of the city’s primary west-side thoroughfares, but the project will also create jobs in a construction industry that’s been ravaged by the recession.

Overall, says Derek Lord, economic development director for Green Bay, the city saw about $138 million of new development in 2008.

“Those developments are good, not just because they add to the city’s tax base, but also because they’re creating new jobs,” says Lord. “We’re pretty proud of that.”

A market analysis and new downtown master plan are still in process, but Cheryl Detrick, executive director of the De Pere Area Chamber of Commerce, says enough is known now to be relatively sure of two things: “We believe that we don’t have a commercial vacancy problem, but we do have a capacity problem in the sense that we need more availability for commercial and retail development. That’s a nice problem to have, and that’s our challenge right now. In the early 1990s, parts of downtown looked like a ghost town, but Main Street De Pere has done an amazing job over the past 20 years.”

An Omaha, Neb., consulting firm, RDG Planning and Design is helping city officials formulate a master plan that will help guide downtown development over the next 20 years, says Detrick, who adds that downtown De Pere is doing well in spite of – and also because of – construction projects in the area, including the new Claude Allouez Bridge that connects the city’s east and west sides. It was completed in late 2007. Parts of George Street on the city’s east side were also reconfigured to feed into the new bridge.

“We’ve learned that road construction taketh away and road construction giveth,” says Detrick. “With the construction on George Street the past few years, the east side downtown took quite a hit in terms of traffic flow, but now with the construction Highway 172, our traffic flow through the city has nearly doubled as people take alternate routes. The new bridge is doing what it’s supposed to do in terms of handling that traffic, but the interesting thing is that we’ve also found that a lot of people who didn’t normally drive through De Pere are discovering it now, so that’s been a real benefit to our retail businesses.”

De Pere also hopes to generate an additional $19 million annually from the proposed Riverwalk/Wildlife Viewing Area downtown at the site of the old Claude Allouez Bridge.

With residential and commercial development continuing to push outward in the county from Green Bay and De Pere, local leaders expect to see continued growth in Bellevue, Howard, Suamico, Lawrence and Hobart.

“Despite the fact that we haven’t seen a lot of stimulus dollars funneled into the local economy, there has been a lot of investment in Brown County development,” says Monique, “so that’s a very positive sign.”