If You Build It…

Posted on May 1, 2011 :: Industries
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

A new expo center in downtown Appleton would mean millions of dollars for the Fox Cities as more visitors come to the area and spend money.

“An exhibition center would be a great economic development project for Appleton. You will bring in more travelers who will come to the Fox Cities and spend their money,” says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Downtown Appleton Inc. and a board member of the non-profit committee working to bring a center to the area.

Visitors to the Fox Cities spent $363.5 million in 2010. “That’s big money and key for our local economy,” says Lynn Peters, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Last fall, former Thrivent Financial for Lutherans executive Walt Rugland announced the creation of a non-profit organization called the Fox Cities Exhibition Center Inc. with a goal to construct an exhibition center. A study of several sites in downtown Appleton revealed the best location would be behind the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel on land owned by Outagamie County and currently used for parking.

The building would be connected to the Radisson via a skywalk and contain equal amounts of expo space and gathering space. Plans call for about 30,000 square feet for each use, but as Stephany points out, the building’s final make-up is in flux.

“They’ve done focus groups with meeting planners – they are the ones who will decide where groups will meet and what kind of amenities are needed,” she says. “We’re working to find out the best options out there.”

For example, one meeting planner pointed out the center will need a door large enough to allow a fire truck to drive in – that’s one way to accommodate a potential client like Pierce Manufacturing.

But don’t get those shovels ready yet. To make the center possible, two big questions need answering: Will the county sell the land? And will the area’s municipalities get on board with a room tax, which will be used to finance the center’s construction?

“Those are the two big hurdles out there,” Stephany admits, but adds the center is too important for the community to not embrace as organizations and companies bypass the Fox Cities for their annual events because there’s not enough expo space available.

While there haven’t been formal discussions yet with municipalities, center advocates anticipate adding 3 percent to the current room tax would cover the bonds required to build the center.
Jay Schumerth, senior general manager of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, says there have been initial discussions with hotel owners throughout the area; their support would be needed before any municipalities would approve the room tax.

Getting the county on board and agreeing to sell the property to the center is another challenge. So far, the county board has resisted, saying the land is needed to accommodate parking for its nearby facilities. But the county has a new leader in place, Tom Nelson, and advocates hope he can help move discussions forward.

“Parking for the county is a big challenge so we’re working closely with the Boldt Co. (which is developing the initial plans for the center) to see what we can to do to keep as much parking intact. This is a process and we’re working with all parties on it,” says Stephany, adding that an initial goal is to have the center ready for conventions in 2014.

Stephany says an agreement between the Radisson and the convention center organization to have the hotel operate the convention center was a step forward in making the center a real possibility. “Having the Paper Valley on board with this is huge,” she says.

Schumerth, who is also ADI president, says the hotel is willing to take on the expected operating loss in running the center because it’s expected the hotel will benefit from increased food and beverage sales.

“We’re taking a leap of faith here, but are confident the center would bring significant growth to the hotel, the downtown and the entire Fox Cities,” he says.

In the past 15 years, Madison and Green Bay built convention centers while La Crosse expanded its expo center. Those projects meant that fewer groups chose to come to the Fox Cities, Peters says.

“Have we lost conventions because we don’t have enough space for vendors? Definitely. The Wisconsin Counties Association used to have Appleton on its circuit for its convention, but larger options were out there and now we haven’t seen them in a long time,” she says.

Peters says focus groups with meeting planners bear that out. “We have talked to planners who say they would love to come to Appleton, but more expo space is needed for those larger conventions,” she says. “We have great banquet facilities and meeting rooms at the Radisson, but what’s missing is that space for exhibitors.”

While the Fox Cities has added banquet space and expo space in recent years, it’s not often connected to banquet facilities, hotel rooms or meeting space that larger conventions require. “When you have a convention, people don’t want to walk too far. They want things close by,” says Schumerth.

Before the KI Center, Schumerth says conventions would come to the Radisson and sometimes used the space around its indoor pool for displays. “They did it because there weren’t other options, so they just made do. With places like the KI Center, they don’t have to ‘make do’ any more,” he says.

Tourism experts agree a convention center would provide an economic boost to the Fox Cities. Bill Geist, president of Zeitgeist Consulting in Madison and an industry consultant, says “tourism is an incredible economic development opportunity.”

Geist, who spoke at the annual Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau Tourism Breakfast in February, says the timing is great for the area to invest in a convention center.

“What is the cost of doing nothing? These opportunities don’t come around that often. You’re going to have to take a look at the pros and cons, but everything I see shows me you are on the right track. I say, go for it! This might be a defining moment for downtown Appleton and all the Fox Cities,” Geist says.

Schumerth says an expo center would bring added dollars to businesses throughout the Fox Cities.

“Businesses downtown and other places in the Fox Cities would see more people coming in, which is good for their business, too.”