The puzzle is tantalizingly close to fitting together.
It’s taken more than a decade of planning, promoting and rebuilding, but the Fox River Locks are just a few final pieces away from opening up new commercial and tourism opportunities for the communities that dot the river’s route through Northeast Wisconsin.
Work to fit those final pieces into the bigger picture is well under way.
“Having these locks operational opens up a lot of history that hasn’t been available,” says Robert Stark, CEO of the Fox River Navigational Authority. “We’re going to be working with the communities and CVBs (tourism bureaus) to create some new opportunities along the river.”
In mid-April, one of the last obstacles to constructing a planned visitors’ center adjacent to Appleton’s Lock #3 were removed when Gov. Scott Walker visited the lock to sign legislation enabling the Authority to develop and manage properties adjacent to the lock system. The 2004 legislation creating the Authority did not allow for new construction or development along the 17-lock system.
The new role allows the Authority to begin shifting its role from preservation and maintenance to developing new facilities, increasing access and enjoyment of the Fox River and the lock system. The center was proposed two years ago and is being designed as a multi-media museum/educational center for area residents with interactive exhibits, classroom space, a scenic overlook, and public facilities on the lower level.
The visitors’ center will be funded by a grant from the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, private donations and a fundraising campaign. A groundbreaking for the new facility is planned in 2017.
“This will be a multi-use facility for those who use the river and the adjacent trails, as well as by the school system and others to learn the local history of the locks,” says Tim Rose, Chairman of the Authority. “We have made substantial investments in renovating the locks, and now it’s time for the public to enjoy this resource.”
Plans to develop the visitors’ center follow the completion in August 2015 of the 10-year project to restore and renovate all the 16 working locks on the lower Fox River. In early May, this historic system will be operational for the first time in 30 years. Boaters can cruise from Menasha to Kaukauna uninterrupted. Portages are still required at Rapide Croche, north of Kaukauna, to continue to Green Bay.
The Authority has invested more than $14.5 million of federal, state and private funds to complete that project on time and under budget. Locks in Kaukauna are scheduled for full operation in 2017.
As the locks draw more attention to the river, many are seeing unique tourism opportunities to cater to boaters, paddlers and those who just love being by the river.
“Anything we can do as a community that speaks to a unique visitor experience is going to be an asset,” says Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This is one of perhaps two hand-operated lock systems left in the country, which is pretty unique history.”
As use of the system grows, Seidl can envision new opportunities for waterfront dining and other amenities that are complementary to being on the water, “Places you can boat to, hop out, eat lunch, then get back on the water.”
Some of those opportunities have already blossomed.
The lock tender house at Little Chute has been restored to how it would have appeared in the 1930s and is now accepting reservations as a bed and breakfast. The De Pere lock tender house has also been restored and leased as a coffee house.
The Authority has longer-term plans to restore the remaining six lock tender houses.
As the usage of the system increases, developer Randy Stadtmueller expects both tourism-related and commercial developments will evolve. Stadtmueller says mixed-use developments featuring residential and commercial uses will spring up to cater to those who want to live and play in the area.
“The river will once again link all the different communities,” says Stadtmueller, who has been involved with opening up the river since the 1980s when Future Neenah helped develop Shattuck Park along the Fox River.
“From Lock #4 in Appleton to the Cedars, five beautiful miles of river have finally been opened up. There is a lot of opportunity there,” Stadtmueller says.
It’s been a long time coming for Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna, a longtime advocate of connecting the riverfront and downtown as part of an overall tourism and economic development strategy. Downtowns will benefit from increased use of the system, he says.
“Activity on the river is going to bring in more people who will also be interested in the other amenities we have,” Hanna says. “The more we can solidify the connection, the more we can all benefit.”
There are still challenges remaining, though.
While the Authority has always planned to keep the lock at Rapide Croche closed as a barrier against invasive species, the discovery of round gobi by the Neenah Dam has resulted in that lock being temporarily closed as well.
One of the final pieces to opening the river to navigation from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay was a boat lift and cleaning station planned for the lock at Rapide Croche. With the reopening of the Menasha Lock uncertain, the Authority has commissioned a feasibility study of moving the transfer and decontamination station to Menasha.
While hopeful the Menasha Lock will eventually reopen, the group also understands the need to prevent invasive species from finding a way into the Lake Winnebago system.
“If Menasha becomes the front line in defending Lake Winnebago, then moving a cleaning station there may make sense,” Rose says.
Even with Menasha temporarily closed and further study of the transfer station under way, advocates of the system say the mere fact the system is open will begin to bring more people to the river and the communities that dot its path through the region.
“We’ve opened up 13 miles of river from Menasha to Kaukauna for the first time in 30 years,” Stark says. “It’s a passion.”