Behind every great city, there’s a plan. And, it’s not a short plan. It’s hundreds of pages of jargon, graphs, objectives and statistics that outline exactly how a community will continue making progress.
In Appleton’s case, this plan is the 2010-2030 Comprehensive Plan, a long-range roadmap intended to guide the growth and development of the community. These plans can’t just collect cobwebs on a shelf for those 20 years.
“Smart Growth Law requires that adopted comprehensive plans be updated no less than once every 10 years,” says Karen Harkness, director of community and economic development for the City of Appleton.
Within the comprehensive plan, the city stated it would update the plan every five years to capture trends, understand key issues, review and analyze land use, update the community vision, identify opportunities and concerns and stay on track with objectives.
The city stuck to that promise. In 2016, it embarked on a five-year update to the plan, which included amendments to the parks and recreation master plan and a full rewrite of the city’s downtown plan. Why the emphasis on downtown?
“The important part about downtown Appleton is it’s the central business district in our region, and leaders thought we should recognize that and reflect it in the official plans for the city,” says Josh Dukelow, host of FreshTake on WHBY and a participant in the development decision-making process.
“The City of Appleton knows that its downtown is sort of like the cover of the book. So, by investing in a very attractive first impression, that puts us in a better position for talent, tourist dollars and all sorts of economic activity,” Dukelow says. “Investing in an enhanced downtown plan was as much symbolic as it was functional. It was the city saying ‘We think this is important and, in order to show that, we’re investing extra dollars in this piece.’”
Encouraging involvement There’s no denying this plan is a pillar of the city’s strategy for fostering a thriving downtown. However, leaders weren’t content to sit in an ivory tower and update the plan on their own.
“What is refreshing, and I think somewhat unique for a city of our size — at least in Northeast Wisconsin — is the value placed on engaging the public in this dialogue from the beginning and not backing away from ambitious and sometimes controversial projects and positions on economic development,” says Adrienne Palm, director of startup accelerator gener8tor, who was involved in drafting and ideation of the downtown plan through committee service.
Monthly steering committee meetings, workshops, bicycle and walking tours, presentations and open houses were held over the course of 11 months to encourage discussion and gather input from the public.
“It was an amazing process,” says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc., which committed to contributing $25,000 to the downtown plan update. “The amount of involvement was beyond our expectations.”
Major highlights Covering everything from business retention and parking initiatives to residential development and arts and entertainment, there’s no denying the downtown plan is ambitious. It touches on nearly every area that would contribute to a flourishing city center. One point of emphasis is supporting downtown Appleton’s spirit of art and creativity.
“The plan includes the creation of a city arts commission as well as the creation of an art and culture plan for the city,” Stephany says. “We are hoping that as the city looks at codes and policies, that new efforts are made to allow for the infusion of public art and cultural celebration and expression.”
The ongoing redevelopment of downtown areas outside of College Avenue — such as the waterfront district — is another area of focus.
“The reimagining of Jones Park and the addition of the convention center are already well underway,” Palm says. “But, there are still so many significant opportunities that have yet to be realized.”
The city also wants to channel energy and resources into residential development. According to the Downtown Appleton Market Study, downtown residences are 98 percent occupied, and residential demand is growing. In fact, 52 percent of citywide survey respondents said they are interested in living downtown. The area will need far more residential development to support that demand.
With a thriving neighborhood in that area, it’s easier to attract investments in retail space, office space, companies that are hoping to recruit talent from larger metro areas, and existing small businesses that would benefit from the increased foot traffic.
The updated downtown plan outlines plenty of lofty ambitions to contribute to downtown’s continued success. But, even with that attention and focus, there’s always more to be done.
“I believe we need to be mindful about the neighborhoods and de facto commercial districts that the current rewrite doesn’t address,” Palm says.
“From the city’s perspective, they certainly can’t do all the things at once. I think they do see the bigger picture and are right to take a strategic approach that will provide the most bang for our taxpayer dollars,” she says. “I am hopeful and optimistic that they will continue to support additional initiatives and projects that address the less visible people and businesses that also provide value to our community and enhance our position as a diverse, innovative and multifaceted community.”