Downtown is the new hotspot, and right now there is no place hotter than downtown Menasha.
After several years of relative quiet in terms of major economic development projects, downtown Menasha may soon boast a signature development that could bring hundreds of workers back to the downtown, fueling demand for other retail and service businesses.
Menasha Downtown Development Corp., a group of local investors, has proposed building an eight-story, 115,000-square-foot office tower in Menasha at Main and Mill streets, on the site where the former Menasha Hotel and First National Bank buildings once stood.
Once constructed, the proposed $12.6 million project will become part of the new headquarters complex of Faith Technologies, bringing more than 300 employees to the downtown area, with a corresponding boost of nearly $18 million in wages.
“If you get people working downtown, then there will be demand for the restaurants, shops and other services,” says John Hogerty, executive vice president and general counsel for Bergstrom Corp. and one of the investors. “We looked at Menasha and saw a lot of empty buildings and shops and thought ‘if we could put together a large development, we could create a signature building for Menasha.’”
Those investors have a track record to back up their enthusiasm.
Many of the investors involved in Menasha Downtown Development were also involved in a similar project that sparked development in downtown Neenah in the 1990s. The group developed what is now known as the Neenah Towers, a three-office tower complex in downtown Neenah.
Not only did that development bring hundreds of new employees to downtown Neenah, it was the catalyst for a downtown renaissance that encouraged Plexus, Alta Resources and others to build new facilities there.
Appleton enjoyed a similar boom with the construction of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, which made downtown Appleton a place to be, sparking supporting commercial and retail development that continues to draw additional people and opportunities downtown.
At first glance, it may seem downtown Appleton is taking a bit of a breather after several years of rapid development surrounding the performing arts center. With ongoing discussions related to high profile projects such as the proposed exhibition center and a new library, a pause could be expected.
Yet, the city and downtown are on a record pace for development projects, says Karen Harkness, Appleton’s community development director. There have been more site plans filed so far in 2015 than for all of 2014, she says.
“We are still seeing a lot of redevelopment and repurposing of underutilized space in the downtown,” Harkness says.
As the development matures, she says the city is experiencing a growing interest in multi-family housing closer to the downtown core. It’s a trend being driven by both retiring boomers and up-and-coming millennials.
“They are all about being around the hub and avoiding the drive,” Harkness says. “They are all about the walkability and how close they can be to entertainment and other amenities.”
There’s no reason the same dynamics can’t work for Menasha, those involved say.
The Menasha City Council approved a project agreement with the developers in May, with the start date contingent on receipt of a $500,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Once that is in place, Hogerty expected construction to begin immediately and the project timeline calls for completion by spring of 2016.
For the city of Menasha, the tower could be the crowning jewel in what has been a very hectic — and successful — series of projects including a new downtown grocery story, Oak Park Place and the Boys & Girls Club. Not all are downtown, but represent a welcome spurt of economic activity.
“We’ve got a lot going on and it’s all good,” says Greg Keil, community development director for the city of Menasha.
The last major development in downtown Menasha was the Marina Place project in 2003, Keil says. This latest project could change the dynamics of the downtown, making it an attractive place not just to work, but also putting it back into consideration as a destination to work and play.
Like many other cities, including several in the Fox Cities, Menasha is seeking to create a unique sense of place.
“With the opening of the grocery store, we are seeing the building up of the fabric and amenities that people want,” Keil says. “When you get to a tipping point, people will start choosing downtown versus the suburbs. Three hundred new employees with income to spend should help increase the value of downtown as a place for development.”
As those other opportunities develop, it will help change the image of downtown as just place for business, says Patrick Skalecki, an engineer with the Green Bay offices of GRAEF, an engineering firm that has worked with Neenah on several of its successful projects, including the redevelopment of the former P.H. Glatfelter Mill and Gateway plaza, a gathering spot that ties downtown Neenah into the local park and trail system.
“You want to make it a place that people want to come to,” Skalecki says. “People need to know they have access to all the services they need.”
A walkable park and trail system can help foster that environment, he says. GRAEF is currently working with both cities on plans to create a complete loop with the trail system — incorporating the Trestle Trail Bridge — tying the two downtowns together.
“People want to live where they have easy access to recreational opportunities, they don’t want to drive to it. A trail system can really be a catalyst for that, spurring other development nearby,” he says.
Plans for the expanded trails are currently under review.
As proposed, Faith Technologies will occupy seven of the eight floors of the new office tower, which will boast the latest in amenities, yet has been designed to blend into the existing architecture of the downtown. Community First Credit Union and the corporate offices of RLJ Dental will occupy the first floor of the tower.
Faith already occupies the nearby Discovery Pointe office building, and together the two buildings will create corporate headquarters campus for the company, a national electrical and specialty contractor. They will be bringing more than employees to downtown Menasha.
“For Faith, this is going to be a showplace where they will bring clients from all over the country to downtown Menasha to show them what they do,” Hogerty says.
According to the terms of the agreement, Menasha Downtown Development will construct both the building and a 300-space parking garage on the city-owned Broad Street parking lot. While reserved for employee parking during the week, the ramp would be open for public parking on evenings, weekends and holidays.
Hogerty says the taxes paid by the developers into the tax increment financing district created for the project will help offset the costs of constructing the new parking facilities, which it will own until the TIF closes in 2043.
He stressed the investors involved in the development have strong ties to the community — many of the investors own businesses or live in the region — and adding a successful development to downtown Menasha is just as important as any eventual returns.
“We are working to do this in a way that is economical,” Hogerty says. “These are folks who care about the community and want to see it succeed. They see this as a community development project and an investment opportunity.”