When businesses and site selectors are seeking locations for new developments, logistics and highway access are at their top of their specification list. That’s what makes a project that was decades in the planning and finally approved in Brown County so significant.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation in October approved a location for the South Bridge Connector in southern Brown County, which will begin at Packerland Drive in the Town of Lawrence, continue along a new road to a new Interstate 41 interchange, and follow Southbridge and Red Maple roads in De Pere to the Fox River.
Cole Runge, planning director for Brown County, began working on the project when he started his tenure with the county 25 years ago and has been doing so ever since. The project has been around, at least conceptually, since the late 1960s.
In addition to providing highway access needed to help draw development projects, the connector will relieve traffic flow generated by industrial and business parks, which now must go through downtown De Pere on its way to and from the freeway system, which is inefficient, Runge says.
“We’re very conscious of the need to create a more efficient connection to the freeway system. We think the Southern Bridge and connecting roads will do that,” he says.
The approval process was long and complicated with fits and starts along the way. In the fall of 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary told the county that if it could finish an Environmental Impact Study for the project by October 2020, the state would agree to design and construct the interchange at I-41 as part of the project, a deadline the county met.
The interchange is vital for attracting development in the growing southern part of the county, says Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach. “That brings high value and brings all kinds of ancillary capabilities. Anytime you can land an interchange in your community, it’s a very positive move.”
In 2018, the county also received a federal Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development — or BUILD — grant valued at $19.8 million to build an interchange at Wisconsin State Highway 29 and County VV, with construction expected to get underway this year.
The interchange will improve safety and help position areas including Hobart, Howard, Pittsfield and Pulaski for growth, Streckenbach says.
Broadband is another critical infrastructure component for drawing business and increasing quality of life. The county created the Brown County Broadband Speed Test, a website that allows residents to enter their address and assess broadband speed in their area. It’s received around 3,000 hits so far.
“Essentially, what we need to be able to do is to justify and to demonstrate to the federal and state governments that there is a real need,” Streckenbach says of using the tool to apply for grants to expand broadband.
Another piece of good news came for the county when it received a $500,000 idle sites grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The money will assist in purchasing the former WPS Pulliam Plant property as part of the effort to relocate coal piles away from downtown Green Bay and expand economic activity at the Port of Green Bay.
While key development projects in the county have progressed, tourism has stalled during the pandemic, stemming in large part from the loss of the economic impact of Green Bay Packers home games. Each Packers game at Lambeau Field brings about $15 million in economic impact, for a total loss of around $150 million, including playoff games.
“For us and really every other destination, practically in the country and even in the world, it’s been the worst year ever for tourism,” says Brad Toll, president and CEO of the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The loss is particularly difficult, as 2019 was a gangbusters year for tourism for the county and 2020 was poised to be as well, with windfalls to come from a Wisconsin Badgers-Notre Dame football game that was supposed to be held at Lambeau Field in October and the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. While the Ryder Cup has been rescheduled for this year, the football game is a loss that can’t be regained.
Toll says bars, restaurants and hotels have faced “unbelievable challenges,” leaving many of them struggling to survive. Beyond that, they’ve had to cut staff, leaving them with the difficult prospect of losing them permanently when they need to bring them back after the pandemic slows down or calling them back during times when they need them. Those include New Year’s Eve, which was busier than it had been for hotels, and the Packers playoff games in January, which allowed a limited number of fans to attend.
Still, there’s room for optimism, Toll says. Historically, when the Packers have made it to the playoffs, the greater Green Bay area has seen a strong summer for tourism built around that excitement, and he hopes to see that come to fruition this summer. The organization has changed its messaging to focus on smaller-group activities people can pursue in the county versus crowded festivals and events.
The Resch Expo Center also opened in January and booked its first major event — a logging expo that will take place in September of 2022 and 2024 — along with many smaller events. Bookings have been slow due to tentativeness around event planning with the pandemic, but Toll expects them to pick up once the situation improves. Event planners who have seen the space are wowed by its beautiful design and natural light, he says.
Toll also holds out hope that a proposed visitor center will get back on track. It appeared to be on its way to gaining approval in the state legislature in 2020 when the pandemic hit, and a bill for a $2 million loan for the project died. There was little opposition to the project, and Toll hopes to see it revisited soon so that ground can be broken on the project this spring.
“Brown County generates over $50 million in state taxes every year,” he says. “Let’s get this built and make that number get even bigger.”