UP FRONT: The big draw

Posted on Apr 1, 2015 :: Up Front
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
A major expansion of the KI Center in Green Bay will be completed this year, adding nearly 30,000 square feet. The chance to attract larger conventions means more people downtown and more opportunities to expand the creative economy. Photo courtesy of KI Convention Center.

A major expansion of the KI Center in Green Bay will be completed this year, adding nearly 30,000 square feet. The chance to attract larger conventions means more people downtown and more opportunities to expand the creative economy. Photo courtesy of KI Convention Center.

How do you get a young professional to notice the creative economy your community is building?

First you have to get them here.

That’s where a top-notch, downtown convention facility comes into play. It may not always top the list of touted benefits, but those supporting the recent wave of convention center expansions say it’s a definite plus for attracting talent.

“It’s an opportunity to elevate an identity that is already good,” says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc., and an avid supporter of both a proposed Fox Cities convention center and the creative economy.

“Anything with the power to bring new people into the district gives us a chance to catch their attention and perhaps attract them here.”

The Fox Cities took a step in that direction in March when the Appleton City Council approved the $2 million purchase of land for a new convention center in downtown Appleton. A $27.5 million, 35,000-square-foot exhibition center has been proposed for the site.  There are still several other hurdles to clear, including convincing 17 Fox Cities communities to raise room tax rates to finance the project, but the purchase represented an important first step.

Once built, the Fox Cities will join Green Bay and Oshkosh as Northeastern Wisconsin communities with new or renovated convention facilities, further enhancing the region’s appeal to professional groups, trade shows and other potential users.

The Oshkosh facility, revamped with assistance of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, is a smaller facility targeting regional conferences and exhibitions.

Green Bay’s KI Convention Center will finish a $23 million expansion later this year, adding 30,000 square feet that will enable it to compete with the state’s largest metro areas to attract conventions. The Fox Cities would compete at the same level if the proposed convention center is built.

There’s plenty of room for both in the marketplace, advocates say.

“Once we build it, we’re in that same group as Green Bay, Madison or Wisconsin Dells,” says Pam Seidl, director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There are really only four to five locations those larger conventions can utilize.”

The target market for the facilities in the Fox Cities and Green Bay are the statewide and regional groups that won’t leave the state or aren’t nearly big enough to access the national convention cities such as Orlando or Las Vegas, Seidl says. Having those conventions visit just one city in the region is not enough.

“That doesn’t do much for the Appleton downtown or businesses around the Fox Cities,” Seidl says.

For those seeking to make the downtown core attractive to young and creative professionals, the larger convention centers are an important part of the place-making infrastructure. Place making is an important component of attracting the creative class that will choose a place to live first, then a company to work for.

“It’s a facility that strengthens the overall vibe in downtown,” says Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay.

“We are getting young people to come to the city and have a positive experience and make that positive first impression.
“Perhaps they will see a community they will want to live in,” he says.

A new convention center will give Appleton another pillar to strengthen its downtown core, much like the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center and the Trout Museum of Art. In addition to attracting larger conventions and exhibitions, it can also foster growth of the creative businesses that will cater to visitors as well as supporting the convention center itself.

“Downtown is a hub for the creative economy,” Stephany says. “There are many businesses who will collaborate to support it both directly and indirectly.

“From a maker point of view, now we are going to have a facility where we can hold some large entrepreneurial events and conferences,” she says. “That opens up a lot of possibilities.”