The big leap

Packers’ Titletown development emerges as a new urban core for greater Green Bay

Posted on Oct 1, 2017 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It’s amazing where a sidewalk can lead you.

As Packers President Mark Murphy recalls, one of the first conversations he had regarding possible real estate development around Lambeau Field was a chat about sidewalks. He was new to his position and Jerry Menne from the Village of Ashwaubenon presented an informal idea he had to create a pedestrian mall stretching from Bay Park Square to Lambeau Field.

1017_Cover_story_bocce“That was one of the first things I remember,” Murphy says, recalling the first seeds of ideas that would eventually result in the Titletown District, the 34-acre, mixed-use development that has emerged this year to the west of Lambeau Field.

“We looked at a lot of different options about doing things in different directions. They were looking at it from what would be good for Ashwaubenon,” Murphy recalls.

“But the more we talked about it, the more I liked the idea of going along Lombardi Avenue better. There was an advantage to going west. We knew we could control quite a bit of contiguous land. That was really the start of it.”

Murphy and the Packers organization would ultimately decide to follow their own path, and the journey is resulting in much more than sidewalks and a pedestrian mall.

In September, the community was invited to celebrate the grand opening of Phase I of the Titletown District: 10 acres of public space including a full-size turf athletic field, playgrounds, and the park and plaza spaces of the development. Those amenities join the recently opened anchor tenants Lodge Kohler, Hinterland Brewery and Bellin Health Titletown Sports Medicine & Orthopedics.

In November — as soon as it is cold enough — the skating rink, skating path and sledding hill are also expected to open, capping nearly two years and a $60 million investment by the Packers. In the next few weeks, the organization is expected to announce the start of Phase II of Titletown: the development of a mix of residential housing, retail and commercial space. 

As the work progresses, Titletown will transform a once well-worn and ramshackle business district into a new, iconic urban core for the greater Green Bay area. The development is expected to become a vibrant neighborhood attractive to young professionals and entrepreneurs, where they and their families can live, work and play.

It’s a vital part of the arsenal in the regional battle for human capital. Without it, the future of the Green Bay metro area — and even the Packers — might not shine so brightly.

“I think anything that helps make Green Bay more attractive and provides more things you can do when you are here in this community, that’s a positive,” Murphy says. “Five years from now, we hope it’s a vibrant neighborhood with a lot of people living in it.”

A slow boil

1017_Cover_Story_junglegymIdeas for development around Lambeau Field have been percolating for years.

For at least the past decade, the Packers have been quietly acquiring parcels neighboring the stadium as they became available. Some were developed into additional parking for game day and special events, others the Packers simply held onto as they sought to influence development around the stadium. 

While there may have been no formal development plans at first, the Packers’ actions reflected a growing trend among pro sports franchises to not just control the surrounding environment, but to create retail and entertainment districts that enhance the visitor experience, as well as drive additional revenue streams for the teams.

Some of the more notable developments by pro sports teams include Patriot Place by the New England Patriots, as well as the areas around Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks organization is creating an entertainment district around a new arena.

Having invested more than $370 million in the expansions and upgrades to Lambeau Field and its amenities, the time seemed right to consider how the Packers could look outside the stadium and create something that would have a long-lasting impact for the team and community.

The Packers liked what they saw in Patriot Place and around Wrigley and Fenway. Yet, Murphy and his team wanted a different approach.

“Those places are great, and I really like Patriot Place,” Murphy says. “But we are dedicating nearly a third of this as a public park, something other developers just wouldn’t do. Our structure is different, and we have different goals. For us, giving back and supporting the community is key, as is making sure the team stays here in Green Bay.”

Those goals require more than just a place to shop or eat on game day. Meeting that standard requires creating an attraction that would persuade people to not only spend a day at Lambeau, but maybe two, or three or even more, in the Greater Green Bay area.

With that vision beginning to coalesce, the Packers’ leadership continued to move forward with property acquisitions, and began talking with consultants about the look and function of such a development. Titletown took shape.

“The goal of Titletown is to help make the Greater Green Bay area a better place to play, work and visit — all year round,” says Ed Policy, lead counsel for the Packers and the day-to-day point person for the Titletown District.

Rockefeller on the Tundra

1017_cover_story_shuffleEarly in the process, Packers leadership engaged University of Michigan professor Mark Rosentraub, a national expert on sports and economic development, to research the challenges and benefits of pursuing the development. Rosentraub has worked with pro teams around the country, most recently the Detroit Red Wings with a new arena and development in Detroit.

It turns out Rosentraub had been thinking about the idea for several years as well.

“It was 2009, I think, when I gave a presentation at St. Norbert College and spoke about the opportunities around Lambeau Field,” says Rosentraub, an assistant professor, the Bruce and Joan Bickner Endowed Professor of Sports Management and director of the Center for Sport and Policy at Michigan. “It was a chance to develop a real civic center for the region.”

From Rosentraub’s perspective, Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin are fighting the same battle for human capital as many other medium- and small-sized Midwestern cities. What he found was that the region lacked an attraction that would make young professionals — particularly college-educated — reconsider departing for larger cities and the coasts.

“There is a loss in human capital in Northeast Wisconsin. The economy is vibrant, but limited if that can’t be reversed.” Rosentraub says. “You need to have a set of amenities that attracts them, and what Green Bay did not have was that core or soul that draws them in.”

It’s a challenge many communities face, and while it’s great to promote natural environs such as the Fox River — a very nice amenity, Rosentraub says — there is one thing those other communities don’t have: The Green Bay Packers.

1017_cover_Story_hinterlandIt’s not just that the Packers brand is one of 32 NFL franchises, but that the organization is an iconic NFL franchise with worldwide recognition. As Rosentraub says, “it’s the sizzle.” Of all sports teams world wide, the Packers brand ranks No. 5 most popular (after Manchester United, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers and Real Madrid), according to a 2011 ranking by the Bleacher Report.

It was that sizzle that led the Packers to look at Rockefeller Center in New York as an example of what they wanted to accomplish: a mix of unique public amenities surrounded by retail and commercial activity based on iconic brands. Add in the winter sports element and housing, and the concept of Titletown began to emerge.

“It’s now a unique civic space the community did not have before,” Rosentraub says. “You don’t need another shopping mall.”

The power of the Packers brand attracts other well-known brands, Rosentraub says, which will enable the Packers’ organization to develop the quality of restaurant, retail, commercial and housing amenities young professionals and entrepreneurs demand in their communities.

Take Lodge Kohler, for example. Without Titletown and the Packers brand, it’s unlikely Kohler would have located one of its five-star resorts in the Greater Green Bay area. But with the redevelopment, and the Packers’ story behind it, the Kohler hotel became one of the primary anchors.

“We always want to be associated with properties that are iconic and have a unique story,” says Christine Loose, group director for lodging with Kohler Properties. “Certainly, the Packers are iconic and unique and so is Lambeau Field. As Mark (Murphy) explained the vision of Titletown, we knew it was the right fit.”

That’s the pull the Packers franchise has, which is a powerful tool when coupled with the scale and mix of the Titletown development.

“There is no team in pro sports doing anything on the scale of the Green Bay Packers — other NFL teams are going to be in awe of this,” Rosentraub says. “When the public is using it every night, and every cultural group is using it, you know you have a special brand. Plus, it’s going to be profitable.”

Meeting the neighbors

1017_Cover_story_Sled_hillIts demographic pull and profitability will be a question answered in the future, but its popularity in Green Bay, particularly the adjacent neighborhoods, is already growing.

While it’s been more than a year of dust, heavy trucks, construction fences and an army of contractors, those inconveniences seemed to melt away as visitors got their first look and feel of the public spaces one sunny Friday in September.

“I love it. It’s just fun,” Nicole Siegle says. Her children attend school in the area, and her family lives less than 10 minutes away. “I just think it’s a great public place where you can meet up with people and do things.”

A meeting space and active area certainly were on the minds of the Packers as the Titletown District took shape. The organization held a multitude of formal and informal meetings with neighbors and other interested users to determine what kinds of activities they wanted.

In addition to the football field, sledding hill and ice rink/path, the public space includes an activities strip for outdoor games such as bocce ball and shuffleboard, as well as plenty of open spaces for other activities such as outdoor concerts or exercise classes.

“We spent a lot of time meeting people in the neighborhood, in focus groups and in public presentations,” Policy says. “They wanted family activities, they wanted it walkable and with a sense of place.”

The Packers hired Jackie Krutz as Titletown program and events manager, and she is already working on programming to keep the space active and attractive 365 days a year.

“People wanted something that would keep them active and bring them together,” Murphy says.

Moving forward

Plans for Phase II of the Titletown development are expected to be announced in late October or early November, probably just around the time the temperatures are cool enough to start making snow and ice for the sledding hill and skating features.

Until now, the Packers have acted as the sole developers of Titletown, but Murphy says they will probably bring in some additional partners for the next phase. A mix of 70 to 80 townhouses, an upscale apartment complex and both commercial and retail space are about as specific as the details are now.

But it’s pretty clear the Packers want to continue the trend they started by recruiting Kohler and Hinterland Brewery as the initial tenants.

“When you couple the unique brand with the unique space and the tenants we have already brought in, we can really attract tenants that would not otherwise come here,” Policy says.

“This is a really good time for the community. There have been a lot of positive developments, and the downtown is strong,” Murphy says. “We are even thinking about ways we can help to maybe create a link between downtown and Titletown.”

As the Packers’ organization firms up plans, its target demographic will be watching and waiting.

“I hadn’t really thought about whether I would be interested in living here,” says Patty Newby, a young professional from Madison who attended the grand opening of the park and plaza areas. “I think I might be more interested when I’m a little older and thinking about a family. Still, I have friends who would probably think that was pretty cool.”

Cool is certainly part of the equation, as long as the final answer is a vibrant community moving forward, Murphy says.

“We want to be good stewards and make sure the area around the stadium is better than when we found it,” he says. “We don’t just want an area that’s active on gameday, we want this to be an active community all year round.”