River rendezvous

Fox Valley communities look to connect the Fox River with downtowns for development

Posted on Jun 1, 2016 :: Economic Development
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

For Fox Cities communities, finding a way to connect the river and its varied downtowns is key to future development and quality of life —major factors in attracting talent and driving the new economy.

Projects such as bike trails, new developments like One Menasha Center and downtown plans that include the riverfront are all helping the region enhance its appeal.

“We’re seeing, very fast, a growing interest in people moving back into cities,” says Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna. Although Appleton might not be able to compete with cities like Minneapolis, Denver or Seattle, “what we have to pay attention to is what are people looking for when they’re making that choice?”

People want places that are safe, clean, friendly, have good schools and places that embrace alternative modes of transportation, Hanna says. They want to be able to walk to retail areas, with interesting shops and good restaurants and entertainment.

“The good news is we have a lot of those elements,” Hanna says.

The Fox River is key to building that infrastructure.

“When I first started as mayor 20 years ago, the river was something you drove over,” Hanna says. “In many ways the river was the thing that divided us, north and south. The river needs to be the thing that brings our community together, not the thing that divides us.”

Enhancing a gem

The Fox River “has the potential to further connect our communities, and serve as a catalyst for more housing, recreation and quality of life options that in turn help attract and engage in-demand talent,” says Manny Vasquez, vice president of Economic Development at the Fox Cities RegionalPartnership.

It’s already happening.

Appleton’s riverfront has seen key additions like Eagle Flats, The Draw, Fox River Mills and other developments. RiverHeath is completing its second building, and will break ground on a 90-room Marriott Hotel later this year. The Appleton YMCA is updating and expanding its downtown facility. A visitor’s center for the locks system will be built on Lawe Street at Lock No. 3, with townhouses along the canal.

Construction of the convention center on West Lawrence Street also will help enhance the area by connecting with Jones Park, a natural link between downtown and the river.

Additionally, Appleton Downtown Inc. has worked to include riverfront businesses as part of the downtown, and Valley Transit’s Link shuttle connects the riverfront businesses with the downtown, making a 20-minute loop. The city also is now rewriting the downtown portion of its comprehensive plan, holding design workshops in May.

Alternative transportation

Bike lanes have also increased in importance as more young people eschew motor vehicles in favor of bicycles, Hanna says. Appleton is working with the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission on a master trail plan for the Fox Cities.

“I think ultimately a lot of that is going to fold into their overall downtown study,” says Eric Fowle, executive director of ECWRPC. “We’re seeing a lot more communities integrate that thought process into a variety of other planning tasks and maybe even recognizing the linkages that exist between multiple types of plans.”

The ECWRPC has managed visioning sessions for municipal comprehensive plans or site-specific projects, such as The Cedars at Kimberly, many seeking ways to make a connection with the Fox River. 

“If and when that takes off, it will provide a great opportunity for more connectivity to the river, certainly for Kimberly and the immediate area,” Fowle says. Plans for development, transportation and mobility or simply seeking new institutional uses for existing properties can all be catalysts for connectivity.

The Grand KaKalin project and the movement of the Kaukauna library to a facility near the river are another example.

Connectivity and development

That connectivity between  communities and the Fox River is critical as they all share a common asset and common goals.

“We’re starting to create those riverwalk areas, the trestle, all these things that are meant to draw people into our downtown to create that 24-hour-type lifestyle,” says Menasha Mayor Don Merkes, whose community has one of the most direct connections to the river, including a riverside marina in its downtown.

The riverfront is home to the 115,000-square-foot One Menasha Center Tower, one of the city’s most recent and largest economic development projects, which will bring about 300 new workers to the city’s downtown area. The tower was finished April 15, with Community First Credit Union occupying the first floor. RGL Dental’s corporate offices will occupy the second tier and Faith Technology is in the upper seven floors.

Neenah is seeing similar activity. The Neenah Downtown Redevelopment Associates Limited Partnership, which invested in Neenah’s three office towers in the 1990s, has proposed another five-story tower for downtown Neenah that could attract hundreds of new employees. The plan is for a 2017 completion date.

Downtown Menasha also has recently seen a Green Bay-area interior designer open a second location, a new coffee shop is going in and some restaurants are expanding, Merkes says.

“All this breeds new excitement and interest in existing businesses and existing storefront space in our downtown as well,” Merkes says.

Lifestyle in motion

To complement the commercial developments, Menasha is now considering developing housing and retail in some industrial property on its west end, he says. The city also hopes to connect the Trestle Trail through the area and downtown, as well as create a loop to the south side of the waterfront, he says.

“There are not a lot of places that you can see the affordable cost of living plus the lifestyle attributes that we have in the Fox Cities,” Merkes says.

The Little Lake Trestle Project would add two new trestles and link the Little Lake Butte des Morts trail loop, creating a 3.3-mile circle and a premier recreational and wellness opportunity for area companies, employees and residents, says Amy Barker, executive director of Future Neenah, which is in charge of fundraising.

“You also have an opportunity to attract people from outside the area to a regional amenity and can make that a destination,” Barker says.

Future Neenah has raised $800,000 from the private sector of its $1 million goal for the $3.2 million project, which would be built in 2017. The rest of the funding would come from a $1.6 million Wisconsin DNR stewardship grant and $300,000 each from Neenah and Menasha, Barker says.

“One of the motivating factors of this project was looking at how we navigate all of our communities in the Fox Cities, and looking at where we’re missing some really obvious connecting points,” Barker says.

Making those connections can help improve navigation between Neenah, Menasha and the Fox Cities enhancing its attractiveness as a whole.

“It makes sense from a regional perspective by working together on some of those projects, and looking at what’s happening around you so you can connect things in a way that makes sense,” Barker says. “So we’re thinking a little bit broader about that.”