Running Start

Posted on Jan 1, 2010 :: Development
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The Oshkosh Convention Center reopened last year after a $2.8 million renovation.

To paraphrase the current economic cliché, Oshkosh apparently has decided not to participate in the commercial construction slowdown. In the dead of winter and the depths of one of the worst economic declines in recent memory, Oshkosh has no fewer than four high profile development projects under way or soon to be so, headlined by the $48 million University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh academic building and the $30 million-plus Marion Road redevelopment project.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Oshkosh has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state and that the Oshkosh Corp. seems to keep adding government projects and the jobs needed to meet the demand. The spinoff effects are being felt throughout the region, but nowhere more so than in the city itself.

“Oshkosh Corporation is really driving the economy and solidifying the employment base,” says Rob Kleman, executive director of the Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. “There’s a huge trickle-down effect all through the region, including companies that supply Oshkosh Corporation.”

The Marion Road project has been years in the making, ever since the city began buying up former industrial land along the north shore of the Fox River, just west and south of downtown, in the 1990s. Following brownfield remediation, the city now has more than 40 acres of land available for development on sites once occupied by Mercury Marine, Murphy Concrete, Radford Industries and numerous warehouses.

The project has had a few false starts, but there are shovels in the ground today in an area bounded by Pearl and Jackson streets and Marion Road. Oshkosh River Development, headed by Art and Andy Dumke, has the first phase of the project under way – about $8 million worth of construction that will include a Morton’s Pharmacy, a Glass Nickel Pizza and corporate offices for Accu-Com Security Solutions. In addition, the first phase includes The Rivers, a 60-unit senior living complex along the river, aided in part by a Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development tax credit.

Kleman says that by the time the 40-acre Marion Road development is completed in the next few years, the city expects to see more than $30 million in property value created.

Just a few blocks northwest of the Marion Road project, UW-Oshkosh is embarked on its first major academic building construction in more than 35 years. University officials estimate that the $48 million construction project will create more than 2,000 jobs in the next three years. The 191,000-square-foot building will house the College of Business, as well as five College of Letters and Science departments and related institutes and centers, including classrooms, lecture halls, labs, breakout study spaces and projects rooms.

The state is providing $40 million of the construction funding, with another $8 million coming from private donors such as Bemis Company Inc., J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., Jewelers Mutual Insurance Company, Menasha Corporation, Plexus Corp., Secura Insurance Companies, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Wisconsin Public Service.

The new academic center will be built to gold LEED standards and is slated to open in 2011.

A $6 million street reconstruction project on North Main Street will get under way in the spring, and businesses from the Fox River to Irving Avenue have been preparing for more than a year. Many have renovated the rear entrances of their buildings to coincide with a city reconstruction of a parking lot behind the buildings that will encourage customer access. Some of the businesses in the 400 block are also taking advantage of $160,000 in grants from the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation for storefront renovation.

The project will include pavement, curb and gutter, sidewalks, landscaping, storm sewers, water main and sanitary sewer.

With the Marion Road Redevelopment under way, Oshkosh development officials are hoping to get another long-awaited redevelopment project into high gear. The South Shore Redevelopment District, which includes the former Pioneer Resort and Marina, as well as the now-shuttered Jeld-Wen factory, already has its first project in the ground. Burns Development completed construction last fall on two eight-unit apartment complexes, built on the site of the former Miles Kimball property. Developer Brian Burns says he plans to construct two more units.

As it did with the Marion Road district, the city began acquiring property in the South Shore district several years ago. That project area has also had some false starts, many related to the Pioneer Resort site, shut down since 2005, which many believe is the key to developing the district. The ill-fated Five Rivers project in 2006 gave many business owners and local officials hope that the Pioneer property would come back to life, but the future remains uncertain.

“It’s a property where the highest and best use is as a resort,” says Kleman, “so we just have to wait for the economy to rebound to make that happen.”

In the meantime, there’s enough momentum to encourage Kleman and others that the future is now – or at least, soon.

Ed Williams, managing shareholder in the Oshkosh office of Davis & Kuelthau, had hoped to have his firm’s offices downtown, but those plans fell through when a previous riverfront development project came up empty. Nonetheless, he’s optimistic about the progress he’s seeing now.

“We have a river running through it,” says Williams, referring to downtown Oshkosh. “We have Class A development spaces available that many communities would fight for. So, I’m happy to see some things happening down there and I’m hopeful that it will continue. Just look at the Pioneer Resort property, for example. There’s so much available there, it’s an engine that should continue to propel us forward.”