Innovation epicenter

Foxconn’s move to downtown Green Bay raises region’s profile as a burgeoning tech hub

Posted on Jul 31, 2018 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Foxconn Technology Group’s expansion into Northeast Wisconsin may have come as a surprise to many, but not the economic development leaders who began marketing the region and making its capabilities known as soon as the company announced its decision to build in the state.

Kevin Vonck, development director for the City of Green Bay, says he and others made a concerted effort to reach out to state leaders to let them know the region was well-positioned to support Foxconn and its auxiliary services. Northeast Wisconsin’s talent pool and demographics make it an excellent fit, he says.

The effort paid off. In June, Foxconn announced its plan to expand its Wisconn Valley Innovation Network to Green Bay. The center will be part of a talent and innovation network for the AI 8K+5G ecosystem Foxconn is creating in Wisconsin — these displays offer sharp definition and can accommodate 5G wireless speeds. Coupled with the Microsoft-Green Bay Packers endeavor TitletownTech set to open this fall, the region is emerging as an innovation hub.

“The Foxconn ripple effect has arrived in Green Bay, Brown County and the New North,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said at a news conference announcing the development. “The cutting-edge technology that will be developed and worked on here will be used around the world.”

The tech giant purchased the iconic WaterMark building in downtown Green Bay as the future home of its innovation center. The six-story, 75,000-square-foot office building was formerly home to the H.C. Prange and Younker’s department stores. The company anticipates creating up to 200 high-tech jobs in Green Bay by the end of the year.

“The innovation center at Green Bay will play a key role in our goal to create a vibrant AI 8K+5G ecosystem in the U.S., with Wisconsin at the heart of this vision,” Foxconn Founder and CEO Terry Gou said in a statement.

Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay Inc., says the move shows the entire state will benefit from the Foxconn development, and it will serve as a catalyst for additional progress. “It’s an inspiring building, and the view and location will be good for them and for the entire area,” he says.

The WaterMark sits at the heart of Green Bay’s CityDeck. Foxconn saw the vibrancy and energy downtown Green Bay offers and viewed those as helpful in its ability to recruit employees, Vonck says.

 

Downtown draw

Foxconn may be the most high-profile company to land in downtown Green Bay, but it’s not the only one. Architectural, engineering, environmental and planning firm ISG announced in May its plans to become a tenant of the WaterMark building.

The Minnesota-based company acquired Green Bay-based Raasch Associates in 2016 and has since grown its presence by more than 40 percent. The company anticipates adding 50 employees in Green Bay, and the space the company is leasing will accommodate up to 100 people.

Lynn Bruns, executive vice president for ISG, says his company, which has nine locations across the Upper Midwest, increasingly seeks downtown locations for the amenities they offer employees. “We believe that’s where professionals want to be, and it’s easier to recruit to,” he says.

Imperial Supplies, a maintenance products distribution company, also made the move downtown. The company relocated its corporate headquarters and 375 employees to a building it purchased and renovated at 300 N. Madison St.

The company, which has experienced double-digit annual growth, anticipates adding 200 new employees, including sales and support staff, in the next seven years at its downtown location. The proximity to a parking ramp that allows the company to provide free parking to employees as well as nearby amenities like restaurants and a variety of fun activities factored into the company’s decision.

“It just brings an added value for our employees to be in this area,” says Jennifer Lowe, human resources director for Imperial Supplies.

Mirkes says these moves are part of a trend of companies recognizing the benefits a city center location offers. Downtown Green Bay Inc. works to foster relationships with employers. That includes boosting aesthetics through purchasing new banners and creating a cleanliness initiative. The organization has committed to having crews clean up the downtown every weekend of the year.

“This is part of recognizing that downtown is a great place to play, but also an important place to work, and it has to have a professional appearance at all times,” Mirkes says.

A long-awaited arrival

After clearing many financial and legal hurdles, the long-awaited Hotel Northland is set to open in October. The facility helps meet a need for higher-end rooms in the city and complements the downtown residential growth, Mirkes says.

The downtown hotel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, opened in 1924 as the largest hotel in Wisconsin. For decades, it served as a social hub before people began to drift away from downtowns. It closed as a hotel in 1980 and was used for apartments for the elderly and disabled until 2010.

The revitalized hotel will feature its original architecture and fixtures including tile floors and crystal chandeliers as well as restored wood paneling and arched windows. It will run as part of the Marriott Autograph Collection, a high-end, boutique group of properties among the chain’s offerings.

Vonck says adding this level of hotel downtown appeals to another class of visitors. “I think for the community, it’s such an asset and there’s so much history tied to it,” he says. “Nobody ever wanted
to see that project fail.”