Staying the course

Oshkosh development projects remain on track despite pandemic

Posted on Dec 31, 2020 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

While the pandemic and its accompanying economic upheaval have dealt a blow to many communities and businesses, development projects have continued undeterred in Oshkosh.

Expansions and upgrades continue at Wittman Regional Airport, with one major project completed and another under construction. “That continues to be a very strong gateway-type project around here,” says Jason White, president and CEO of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp.

In November, Wittman reopened Taxiway Alpha, or Taxiway A. The airport completed the approximately $7.5 million reconstruction project ahead of deadline and in only two phases. 

The project included upgrading the Taxiway A lights to LED lighting and signage improvements, improvements to the drainage system with enhanced grading and construction of a concrete storm drain gutter, and widening the taxiway to 60 feet. 

The improvements will provide enhanced safety for using the taxiway and increasing its useful life, the airport stated in a release. Taxiway A is used heavily year-round and operates as a third runway during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Wittman will be able to operate three non-intersecting runways, providing for arrival and departure rates that are critical to the safety and success of the event.

In July, construction began on a new general aviation terminal at the airport. A single, more efficient structure will replace two existing structures located on 20th Avenue. In addition to serving general aviation air traffic, the new building will also provide space for Basler Flight Service, airport administrative offices, space for a rental car operation and meeting rooms available to the general public. The project is slated for completion this summer.

Development also is humming along on the commercial side. “In spite of the pandemic, it’s been a good year from a development perspective,” says Rob Kleman, senior vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce.

Major commercial projects include:

Oshkosh Avenue corridor projects: a new Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins restaurant slated to open soon; Lakeshore Plaza Office building that will include CLA occupying the entire second floor and up to 7,500 square feet available on the first floor; Chick-Fil-A slated to open in January; and construction of Towne Place Suites by Marriott, which will include 103 extended-stay rooms.

Brio Building on Jackson Street, led by Merge Urban Development Group — mixed-use project that includes the 6,500-square-foot Oshkosh Food Co-op set to open this summer and 60 market-rate residential units. The building also has additional room on the first floor for another retail tenant.

Gibson Social Club, a new wedding and event venue being planned for the former Crescent Moon Antiques Building at 537 N. Main St. in downtown Oshkosh. Local developers Eric and Kristen Hoopman purchased the building and plan to create a new event and meeting space.

Residential development is going strong as well, especially on the multifamily side. White says it’s an important component in attracting workers. “We need workforce. We need people, and a lot of times that’s
a stepping stone to people buying homes,” he says.

Construction will begin soon on 144 market-rate units on Witzel Avenue. CR Structures Group is partnering on a project that will transform the former Miles Kimball building on Main Street into 28 market-rate apartments. Aspire Senior Living is working on a project on Heritage Lane behind Fleet Farm that will offer independent living, assisted living and memory care for those 55 and older. Northpointe Development secured WHEDA tax credits to build a workforce housing project in the city.

On the workforce front, the unemployment rate was down to 4.1 percent as of Oct. 31, following a peak of 14.3 percent in April. Kleman says a drive-thru job fair held in July in conjunction with the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board connected 70 companies with 400 prospective workers. He adds that many employers still need workers. “With all that’s going on, there’s still a labor crunch.”

While many small businesses have received assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program, relief programs through the Oshkosh Chamber and Greater Oshkosh EDC, and Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. grants, many are still struggling, Kleman says, and could use more federal stimulus money, particularly another round of PPP funding.

“We’re not through it yet. Definitely, additional support is needed and welcomed,” he says.

Oshkosh Corp. new leadership

In November, Oshkosh Corp. announced John Pfeifer, the company’s president and chief operating officer, will take over as CEO of the company effective April 2, when current CEO Wilson Jones will retire.

Jones says 2020 was “heavy on challenges” for the manufacturer, but its people-first culture and market diversification have helped to see it through. Though the company’s defense and fire and emergency segments have continued to perform well, its specialty and access equipment markets have suffered.

“Thankfully, our team has built a really good foundation for culture. This hasn’t been easy, but I think it’s been easier for us than, say, a company that hadn’t been focused on people, hadn’t been true to core values,” Jones says.

As Jones reflects on his time at the company, he says Oshkosh Corp. has come a long way since he began his tenure in 2005. When he first suggested creating a people-first culture, he encountered skepticism that it was possible to follow a servant-leader model and still perform financially. He and his team have been able to achieve just that, however.

“That’s satisfying for me to help people see that you can treat people with dignity and respect and still win on the financial side of it too,” Jones says.

As for the future, Pfeifer says with the country still battling the pandemic, he expects the business will face a difficult next couple of quarters, and he anticipates a late-winter 2021 rebound. Until recovery begins to happen, customers will proceed cautiously with spending, he says.

Long-term, however, both Pfeifer and Jones describe their outlook as bullish. And for good reason — the company recently acquired Michigan-based engineering and product development company Pratt Miller and received a $911 million joint light tactical vehicle order from the U.S. Army.

“I see us in the diverse end markets where we compete, and we’re essentially
No. 1 in all of the end markets that we serve,” Pfeifer says.