Weathering The Storm

Posted on Apr 1, 2009 :: Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Courtesy Oshkosh Convention and Visitors Bureau

At a former Bergstrom Automotive dealership on Jackson Street in Oshkosh, Jeff Ehlers and his partners are making plans to be the latest cog in the city’s economic engine. Focused on developing alternative and renewable energy technology and applications, Renewegy LLC recently received a $250,000 technology venture fund loan from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce to help purchase equipment as part of a $2.67 million project to get the company moving.

The company has an ambitious plan to create 60 high-tech jobs in Oshkosh within the next three years. Right now, the company is focusing on two products – a hybrid power train for off-highway vehicles and wind turbines for small industries or small commercial application, including farms, factories, schools and businesses.

“We’re expecting to grow quite a bit,” says Ehlers, president of Renewegy. “We really believe in the future, businesses and schools will have their own wind turbines to help generate their own electricity. People are interested in being more ‘green’ and right now there are incentives out there to make the leap.”

The state funds will be used to equip Renewegy’s new propulsion lab.

“Renewegy will help diversify our economic base in Oshkosh, which is wonderful,” says Rob Kleman, executive director of the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Corp., a public/private partnership arm of the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce designed to promote economic development. “They are a homegrown company and we’re excited to be working with them.”

Kleman says the city’s diverse economic base, which includes manufacturing powerhouse Oshkosh Corp. and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, has helped Oshkosh weather the recent economic storms.

“From a success perspective, we have been able to leverage regional resources from throughout the Fox Valley and grow stronger,” Kleman says. “In 2008, we had 190,000 square feet of new commercial construction and our commercial property value increased $85 million, which is astounding.”

Some of the 2008 commercial growth came through the opening of the new Comfort Suites Hotel, an expansion of the Menards store and new office building developments. In 2009, Kleman expects commercial development to continue its growth with Best Buy and Michaels, an arts and crafts store, planning to open stores in the old Wallace Furniture site and WHG Company is building new offices in the Universal Business Park, Kleman says.

Oshkosh Corp. – the biggest cog in the city’s economic engine – continues to chug along. The manufacturer of specialty equipment and vehicles for the commercial, fire and emergency and military markets continues to receive billions of dollars worth of business. In the last year, Oshkosh Corp. has announced more than $2.7 billion in military contracts, plus another that could be worth as much as $1.2 billion.

4imprint, a promotional products company, is another growing Oshkosh business. The company recently completed a 92,000-square-foot distribution facility in Oshkosh’s Southwest Industrial Park. The project more than doubles the size of the company’s distribution center and is the new home for not only existing distribution operations, but also mail crews who currently work in 4imprint’s corporate headquarters in downtown Oshkosh.

“They have added 140 jobs in the last three years and are a real success story for Oshkosh,” says Elizabeth Hartman, executive director of Chamco, a nonprofit economic development corporation focusing on industrial growth.

Hartman says businesses are still contacting Chamco for assistance or advice on their projects, which she takes as a good sign. “Our phone continues to ring even though the economy has slowed down,” she says. “Some people may be postponing projects a little, but they are still interested in growth.”

Downtown development
The newly renovated Oshkosh Convention Center is the latest piece in the puzzle of reviving the city’s downtown.

The $2.8 million renovation features 18,500 square feet of flexible space with views of the river. “The convention center is completely state-of-the-art with a lot of amenities built in,” says Maureen Strauss, who became the first downtown Business Improvement District manager last May. “There’s a wonderful transformation going on and the convention center is a huge part of that.”

Oshkosh officials are optimistic the newly remodeled convention center will spur development throughout the downtown while taking advantage of the city’s unique waterfront location. “We have thousands of people who work in our downtown every day. It’s a wonderful place to be,” Strauss says.

A building facade grant program and the ongoing Riverwalk project, which aims to create walkways along each side of the Fox River from Wisconsin Street to Lake Winnebago and then connect those walkways to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and the Wiowash State Trail, are also key parts of the downtown renovation.

The Oshkosh Area Economic Development Corp assisted in coordinating a $15,000 BID Facade Grant program. Eleven projects were approved and initiated in 2008 that leveraged over $50,000 in private improvements, Kleman says.

The biggest piece is coming in 2010 when Main Street will be reconstructed. The $5.7 million project calls for reconstructing N. Main Street (also known as U.S. Highway 45) from the Fox River Bridge to Irving Avenue. In addition to a new street and sidewalks, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation project also includes streetscape enhancements such as decorative street lighting, plantings and enhanced crosswalk treatments.

Strauss says it’s key to have solid businesses and plans in place before the project begins to ensure local retailers and eateries don’t suffer during the construction. “It will be a massive project,” she says, adding that the new $23 million four-lane Wisconsin Street Bridge project was completed last fall.

“Bringing on a BID manager was a big step forward. We are putting more focus on reviving and developing our downtown,” Kleman says. “We have a lot to offer.”

Hartman remains bullish about Oshkosh’s future. “We have a lot of resources here – UW-Oshkosh, EAA, our waterfront location and strong local manufacturers – that really give us the potential for more growth. Our companies have strong fundamentals and we are poised for more success,” she says.

New academic building at UWO fueling economic growth
The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s new academic building, which will begin going up later this year, will be an economic shot in the arm to not only the campus and the City of Oshkosh, but to the entire New North, according to UWO Chancellor Richard Wells.

Earlier this year, the State Building Commission approved a $48.3 million proposal to build the 175,000-square-foot academic center, which will be the campus’ first academic building since 1971. Additional money is being allocated to move the facilities management department, which is currently located at the site on the Fox River where the new building will rise.

“The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh will be spending more than $100 million on construction projects within the next five years,” Wells says. “Constructing the new building will create about 2,000 jobs. That impact will be felt throughout the New North. Once the building is complete, it will allow us to improve our education offerings, which again will have a ripple effect across the New North.”

The new building is one of only four academic buildings being built in Wisconsin during the current two-year budget cycle. The state has pledged $40 million toward the construction project, while private donors will contribute $8 million. The university says that more than $5 million has already been raised for the project.

“The State of Wisconsin obviously sees the importance of this project and what it will mean to not only the campus, but the entire community. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get behind a project that is worth this much in the current economic environment,” Wells says. “This project and the jobs it will create are coming at the perfect time.”

Bids will go out this summer and construction work is slated to begin in September, with a completion date some time in 2011. The Chicago architectural firm VOA, in association with Berners-Schober Associates Inc. of Green Bay, is designing the building.

Plans for the building, which will feature state-of-the-art classrooms, labs, project rooms and faculty offices for the College of Business and the College of Letters & Sciences, have been in the works for years. In 2000, the university conducted a survey that showed the campus was 200,000 square feet short of the necessary academic space. Since then, the college’s enrollment has continued to rise – 2,000 more students today call the campus home than in 2000.

“There is no question this new building is needed,” Wells says.

To make room for the new building, UWO officials will team up with Chamco, Oshkosh’s economic development corp, to convert the former Cub’s food store on Witzel Avenue into the new home for the college’s facilities management department.

“We’re very excited to team up with the university on this project. It will be a huge addition to the campus and our area as a whole,” says Chamco Executive Director Elizabeth Hartman.

The new academic center will be built to gold LEED standards, making it the most environmentally friendly and efficient building of its kind in the state of Wisconsin, Wells says.

“This will definitely be one of the region’s largest construction projects and it’s a sophisticated project that will require more talents and resources than building a road or bridge,” he says.

The university may also reap the benefits of the federal stimulus package passed in February by Congress. Some UWO infrastructure projects could be covered, such as new roofs, heating systems and other improvements.

“It’s an exciting time here and what we’re doing is really going to be felt throughout the entire New North as we are able to provide not only jobs with our construction projects, but also being able to better educate our future work force,” Wells says.