INSIGHT ON: Economic Development – Setting the centerpiece

Appleton launches a new effort to define downtown success

Posted on Dec 1, 2015 :: Economic Development
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Attractions such as the Farmers Market have made downtown Appleton a desired destination for work and play. Courtesy: Sean Johnson

Attractions such as the Farmers Market have made downtown Appleton a desired destination for work and play. Courtesy: Sean Johnson

Government planning efforts don’t necessarily inspire a lot of confidence.

In many circles, just mentioning a government plan or study conjures up images of thick, spiral bound reports filled with technical and governmental jargon lining rows of shelves, not offering much more than a home to wayward specks of dust.

Then there is the plan for downtown Appleton.

“This is not one of those plans that sits on a shelf,” says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc., which will contribute $25,000 to the creation of the next plan. “We have really taken this to heart and we use it nearly every day
as we go about our work.”

Indeed, there’s no dust on this particular plan — stray ink marks and dense notes in the margins, perhaps, but this is a plan well used and worn by those who set out to make sure Appleton’s central core remains a vibrant economic and cultural hub
for the community.

“You can see the return on the infrastructure investments the city
has made,” Stephany says.

In many ways, the current plan — formally adopted in 2007 — owes much of its success to the first formal downtown plan rolled out in the late 1990s that ultimately led to the construction of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, sparking the emergence of a creative economy that is still evolving and driving the sense of downtown as a regional “place to be.”

That’s what makes the next steps
so important.

Last month, the city of Appleton issued a request for proposals for
the statutory updates of its comprehensive plan. Specially noted, however, was an “in-depth rewrite of the Downtown Plan.”

Given the recent successes of the downtown region, everyone wants to make sure they get this next one right.

“We want to look at the trends and the demographics and really ask the question, ‘Are we still on the right track?’” says Monica Stage, deputy director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Appleton. “We’ve earned great accolades with what we have accomplished, but we want to see if we are still on the
right track. Or, do we need to try a
different approach?”

College Avenue was named one of the “Great Places in America” by the American Planning Association in 2014, and the downtown area features prominently when Appleton is mentioned in recent lists of best places to live and other media rankings.

As important as College Avenue is, downtown is a much broader tapestry when it comes to both work and play in the city center. That broader understanding of downtown could play a larger role as the next plan for the area comes together.

An area of opportunity cropping up recently among downtown advocates is the need to increase the availability and type of housing in the downtown area to meet the needs of both current residents and those seeking to move into the area, a group that ranges from young millennials to empty-nest baby boomers.

“What would really serve the downtown is to have more robust residential options,” says Josh Dukelow, key accounts manager for Fox Valley Technical College and a member of the board of directors for Appleton Downtown, Inc. “People want to live downtown. Right now, they can’t always find the options
they want.”

The housing piece was one of the priorities identified by the Appleton Downtown board at a recent planning retreat, Dukelow says. Other items topping the list include attracting a corporate headquarters to the downtown area and finding additional ways to tie the redevelopment of the riverfront to the downtown area.

Development leaders from several Fox River communities gathered in Appleton in November to discuss the resurgence of the river when it comes to economic development. Leaders from Appleton showed off projects such as Fratello’s, the Fox River Mills, Trolley Square, the Woolen Mills and RiverHeath as some of the city’s best riverfront projects. 

But the bluff that blocks the view between College Avenue and the riverfront creates a psychological barrier that often keeps development in the two areas separated when in fact they are actually quite close.

“I think it is even better for the community if we can partner the commercial success of downtown with the riverfront,” Dukelow says.

Two projects that could further enhance that connection are slowly inching towards fruition.

Plans for the Fox Cities Exposition Center moved dramatically forward in November when the Appleton City Council approved the agreements and room tax increase for its construction. The other 10 communities that must also approve the room tax increase were scheduled to complete their deliberations by Nov. 30.

If approved, plans can move forward for construction of a convention center on West Lawrence Street in downtown Appleton, connected to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel and estimated to cost $27.5 million.

Once open, the new convention facility is projected to increase convention business nearly $5.5 million annually. 

A new expo center would also create new dynamics for the downtown economy, another aspect downtown advocates will be anticipating as they put a new plan together. They are hoping to have the plan complete in early 2016.

“We need to make sure we have a connector between the exhibition visitor and our businesses downtown,” Stephany says.

The other project could possibly tie the riverfront closer to downtown is the replacement or renovation of the Appleton Public Library. While the city has rejected one site, plans for either a new site or refurbished library – estimated at $30 million — are still under consideration.

While things are seemingly bright for the heart of the city, projects outside the core of Appleton are also on the upswing. The city’s 2014 Growth Report shows that while growth has sometimes come in fits and starts, things are generally trending up.   

The city saw a net increase in new construction in 2014, an increase of more than 1 percent from the year prior. Construction activity in Appleton accounts for more than 23 percent of the activity recorded for all of the Fox Cities communities.

A net gain of new business over departed or closed business was also recorded, the report shows.

While things have appeared quiet as the ongoing debate regarding the library and the expo center lingers on, the city has seen an uptick in planning activity, says Karen Harkness, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development department. By the end of September 2015, plans for new projects surpassed the number filed for all of 2014.

Given the positives seen across the city as a whole, Stephany says it’s even more important the next downtown plan serve as a catalyst
for continued success.”

“This is a great opportunity to look forward and to engage people,” she says. “We need to let them dream. That all needs to be reflected.”

The Draw makes its debut

Don’t tell John Adams that art and economics don’t mix.

In late November, the local artist introduced Appleton to The Draw, a 5,200-square-foot office building he helped bring back to life as work spaces and offices for digital and fine artists, a modern art gallery and a place for creative professionals to collaborate.

The latest addition to Appleton’s creative economy is located at 800 S. Lawe St., overlooking the Fox River at Appleton Eagle Flats. 

“I am really looking forward to bringing diverse people together to celebrate, create, inspire and be inspired,” Adams says.

The building features 16 suites that house a variety of tenants ranging from artists and graphic designers to musicians and wellness consultants. The facility also has the capability to house a variety of events, from pop-up restaurants, to fashion shows to live music events.

Adams developed the project with the assistance of Stadtmueller & Associates in 2014. For nearly two years, the company had researched potential redevelopment opportunities for the former office building. The group sees its investment as doing more than just renovating a building. 

“By bringing more arts and culture to Downtown Appleton’s riverfront, we hope to rejuvenate the neighborhood and draw young professionals to the area,” says Renee Torzala of Stadtmueller
& Associates.