The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s new “front door” is the latest Oshkosh development designed to bring more people downtown.
Opening this April, the UW-Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center is on the Fox River adjacent to the Wisconsin Street Bridge on the campus’ southern edge. The 40,000-square-foot facility will feature a variety of state-of-the-art conference and meeting spaces including a ballroom that seats 460 people, four breakout rooms each sitting 70 to 80 people, and a board room that sits 48.
Arthur Rathjen, president of the UW-Oshkosh Foundation, says the new center fills a need on campus and in the community.
“Right now, meeting space is at a premium on campus. We have to do meetings or events at the Reeve Memorial Union and students use that space, too,” Rathjen says. “This will also be a nice venue for the community to use for weddings or other activities that want to take advantage of the state-of-the-art
space and take in the views of the river. We’ve already had a lot of interest in using the facility” from outside UW-Oshkosh.
The new space will be used for a variety of events and activities and provide a “connection” point between the community and campus, Rathjen says. “The community will now have a better place to interact with students and staff members, which we hope leads to more collaboration,” he says. “It’s not a teaching facility, rather an engagement center where people can gather for different activities, whether it’s a symposium, outside speakers or receptions.”
The new facility isn’t far from the former City Center Hotel, another foundation project. The foundation partnered with RB Hospitality and Pfefferle Companies Inc. to purchase and completely remodel the hotel, filling a need in the city’s downtown. Renamed Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel and Conference Center, the facility opened last spring and also includes a Ground Round restaurant.
“The projects fit well together and we are providing a lot of menu options for people looking to have events in Oshkosh,” Rathjen says.
The new welcome center and the hotel renovation are the latest additions to a downtown area that is seeing growth on numerous fronts, says Rob Kleman, senior vice president for economic development at the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce.
“We are seeing a lot of energy and action in the downtown and I think it can be traced back to the Downtown Action Plan from 2000 that led to the construction of the Leach Amphitheater, the River Walk and other projects,” he says.
The city completed construction of the River Walk between the amphitheater and the UW-Oshkosh campus last summer. Kleman says that project is bringing people back to the river and opening up more commercial and residential and development opportunities.
The newest residential project going up is The Rivers II, an 80-unit apartment complex designed with young professionals in mind. The facility is near The Rivers, an already completed senior living complex that is part of the Marion Road Redevelopment Area.
“There’s a lot of positive stuff going on,” says Kleman, adding the downtown has a stable base of employment with companies like 4Imprint and Silver Star Brands (formerly known as Miles Kimball). “That leads to more interest in commercial projects since the people living and working in the downtown are looking for places to eat and shop.”
While Oshkosh Corp. has driven the community’s economy in recent years, the company’s defense sector announced job cuts last spring, putting hundreds out of work. The area’s unemployment rate remains below the state average, however, because other manufacturers, including the Bemis Co., are on the lookout for workers, Kleman says.
“We’re seeing a lot of growth in the tech sector,” he says, pointing to companies such as DealerFire, ImproMed and Oracular. “The close connection to UW-Oshkosh and Fox Valley Technical College means there is a pool of workers here. The talent base we have here fuels job growth and the downtown environment is what these companies are looking
for. We want to continue growing our IT sector.”
DealerFire, a company that makes websites and handles online advertising for car dealers, has added 50 employees within the past couple of years and ImproMed, which makes veterinary practice management software systems, opened a new headquarters early last year as it sees continued growth.
A study completed for the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Marketing Group last June found the area is primed for the creation of an industry cluster focused around technology. A Targeted Information Technology Committee was created to carry out the study’s recommendations, including forming an IT business incubator and refining the connections between educators and businesses to insure students are graduating with the skills needed to be successful, Kleman says.
Another industry literally taking off is aviation. After years of discussion and planning, Winnebago County and the City of Oshkosh came together to purchase 80 acres of land adjacent to Wittman Airport off of W. Ripple Avenue for the creation of an aviation industrial park. With Oshkosh being home to the Experimental Aircraft Association and AirVenture, the move is a natural fit, says Elizabeth Hartman, CEO and general counsel for Chamco, an industrial development organization that handles the leasing and land deals for Oshkosh’s industrial parks.
“It’s exciting this project is moving forward. It’s been talked about for a while and besides being home to EAA, we have other businesses tied to aviation like Basler and Sonex, plus our colleges have aviation programs,” she says. “It’s a good fit.”
The park received a $2 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant to extend utilities and infrastructure, such as streets, into the recently acquired property.
UW-Oshkosh is working with Chamco, the city and county to develop a business accelerator that would be located in the new business park. While it would focus on entrepreneurs interested in aviation enterprises, all businesses would be welcome, Hartman says. The accelerator would not only be the place to host an intensive entrepreneurial education program, it would also have space that could be rented out to small businesses.
“It would be a place where entrepreneurs can ramp up their ideas and see if it’s a viable business,” she says.
The majority of the $11 million needed for the accelerator has already been allocated through a variety of grants and funds from the city and county. Hartman says a team is working on raising the remaining $2.75 million needed for the project. So far, there is no firm timeline on when construction would start.
“We have several teams working on it, looking at not only what the facility will look like, but what will this program look like?” she says.
In addition to the accelerator, the park will be home to industries tied to the aviation sector. Hartman hopes that AirVenture and AeroInnovate, an event hosted by UW-Oshkosh’s Small Business Success Center during AirVenture for aero-related businesses seeking to bring new technologies to the marketplace, will draw attention to the park from people outside the area.
“There’s a lot of potential. It’s going to be very exciting the next few years,” Hartman says.
A CLOSER LOOK
For more information about the business and industry cluster study completed for the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Marketing Group, please visit www.opportunityoshkosh.com.