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Meeting a Need

Long-discussed convention center expansions and modernizations are finally built. 

Are more people coming to northeast Wisconsin now?

Story by Lee Reinsch

May 2018

The buzz around expanded convention facilities across northeast Wisconsin has been resounding over the past decade.

Meeting space needs analyses, feasibility studies, conversations about funding, property acquisitions, and dozens upon dozens of community meetings with various stakeholders eventually gave way to bulldozers and cranes for construction crews to make such long-proposed facilities a reality.

New North B2B magazine invested several articles over the last 10 years allowing meeting and tourism officials from the region to explain what kinds of meetings and conventions the area was missing out on to hotspots like Milwaukee, Madison and Wisconsin Dells. Now all of those long-discussed larger, modern convention facilities up and down the Interstate 41 corridor have been completed and are open for business.

So are these facilities bringing in the larger, grand conventions that they promised? New North B2B threw a net around the conversation to gather what’s what in convention facility updates.

Region’s newest showpiece

No one will argue the Fox Cities Exhibition Center was a long time coming. Over a decade of planning and debate crawled by from the time a small group of business people brewed up the idea to the ribbon cutting earlier this year.

With amenities such as a five-bay loading dock, 20,000-pound capacity freight elevator, and skywalk leading to the previously existing Paper Valley Hotel, the facility is already on its way to becoming a leading conference center in northeast Wisconsin.

“It’s certainly opened us up to a lot of new business in the area – business we weren’t able to accommodate before,” said Pam Seidl, executive director of Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s brought a nice amenity into the heart of our municipalities and into the heart of downtown Appleton.”

Within its first year, the Fox Cities Expo Center should generate around $8 million in local economic impact, according to Linda Garvey, general manager of Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton, which oversees management of the facility. The City of Appleton owns the expo center, and local hotel room taxes help pay for much of the construction debt on the nearly $32 million facility.

The Fox Cities Expo Center is equipped to accommodate large and small groups of all kinds.

“We’re looking at events through all segments, so whether it be an association, government group, religious conference, fraternal conference, or anybody that would hold a conference that would generate (hotel) rooms in the market,” Garvey said.

The docks, freight elevator and street-level ramp that conveys right down into the facility and onto the exhibition center floor make loading and unloading relatively simple for exhibitors, according to Garvey.

“When exhibitors come in, they have all their products in their exhibit-booth design, so it’s important for them to be able to bring their items into the loading dock, into the freight elevator and down into the exhibit floor in a timely fashion,” she said. “That’s something the five-bay loading dock really helps with.”

For example, during the recent Home and Garden Show, Appleton-based Waupaca Elevator Co. used the docks and freight elevator to bring a residential elevator in for display at the show.

“Certainly the primary focus is attracting these tourism related groups, and it’s definitely doing that,” Seidl said.

Even groups not before viewed as primary users of the new Fox Cities facility, such as state darts tournaments, are using it already, Seidl said.

“We’re seeing a lot of people having a lot of interest in the exhibition center from a lot of different areas,” Seidl said.

Seidl said in the short few months it’s been open, the Fox Cities Expo Center has hosted corporate meetings and events, sales conferences, statewide conventions such as the Governor’s Conference on Tourism, and local events, like a chamber-sponsored career expo for 8th graders. “It’s a nice mix of the different types of events you’d expect to see in a facility like this,” Seidl said.

Some of the larger events likely would have been held in another city were it not for the new exhibition center, Seidl said. Others might have been held elsewhere in the city.

Still others are looking at Fox Cities Expo Center for future events.

“We had a state powerlifting event at the Radisson ballroom this year, and they’re now interested in coming back and using the exhibition center,” Seidl said.

So is it taking business away from other facilities in the area? Garvey said no.

“Because we have a lot of inventory here at The Radisson, when we’re able to fill up our rooms, then our competitors also receive (increased business),” Garvey said.

The Radisson Paper Valley Hotel has 388 guest rooms, while the average in the market is about 120 rooms, according to Garvey.

“We’re looking at conferences that will not only fill the downtown hotels, but spill into the airport properties and surrounding communities,” Garvey said. “If we can generate demand for rooms in the market, then everybody wins.”

Arena open to slew of events

Home to the Wisconsin Herd, part of the Milwaukee Bucks Gatorade League basketball team, Oshkosh’s newest kid on the block is off to a strong start.

Menominee Nation Arena is among the largest and most modern arenas of its kind in the state, but its leader isn’t messing around with state distinctions.

“I’m going for No. 1 in the country, and as far as G-league facilities go, we’re the best in the country,” said Debra Allison-Aasby, senior vice president of the arena, adding that she heard this comment from one high-ranking G-League official.

“I think everybody knew it would be great, but just not how great,” she said.

Menominee Nation Arena opened Dec. 1 in time for the year’s last eight home games, most of which sold out, according to Amy Albright, executive director of Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The project came together quickly. “Typically an arena our size would take a year to two years to build … but it was done in eight months,” Allison-Aasby said. This time last year, crews were just breaking ground on the site along South Main Street.

In its first five months open, possibilities for alternate uses have evolved from just basketball.

“It became apparent that basketball wasn’t the only thing the community needed,” Allison-Aasby said.

In addition to housing the Herd, Menominee Nation Arena has become a concert venue, entertainment facility, and meeting and conference destination. The month of April saw such events as the Water City Wrestlecon and championship boxing. Musicians Cory Chisel and Sawyer Brown are on tap for May, comedian Jeff Foxworthy will be there in June, and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will appear for an event in September.

High school and college basketball players make use of the court as well, Allison-Aasby said.

“We’ve done corporate training and seminars, meetings of governmental entities, and different boards that are nonprofit, both local and statewide. We have a statewide association coming up. We’ve done two job fairs, and we’re working on a health and wellness event,” she said. Volleyball is also a future consideration.

A transformation

The basketball court – or bowl, as the area in the arena is referred to – becomes the concert and entertainment venue once the hardwood floor, made by Menominee Tribal Enterprises, is removed.

“It takes seven guys six and a half hours plus a forklift and separate storage area,” to pick up and remove the floor, Allison-Aasby said. “You wouldn’t know there’s a basketball team that plays here because everything for basketball is out of there, and the bowl is completely open with a concrete floor.”

Menominee Nation Arena’s $500,000 sound system augments the transformation from court to concert hall.

“I’ve had conversations where people in their minds think of this as a gym, and they get here and literally, their jaw drops to the floor. That’s why this is almost a $25 million project – it’s so much more than just a gym.”

Menominee Nation Arena’s second floor has two party decks – on the north and south sides – that can accommodate smaller groups of 80 and 125 people, respectively, and the upper lounge located between the two party decks provides a more communal spot for smaller groups, Allison-Aasby said. Additionally, a glassed-in area in the concourse of the arena can serve as a meeting spot for smaller groups.

“People will tell you when they come here – for a building that’s mostly made of concrete – they feel immediately welcomed when they come in,” she said.

The Maple Pub inside the arena is open full time, plus the arena has multiple kitchens to accommodate catered events.

A boost to the area

Albright called Menominee Nation Arena and the Herd an incredible addition to the Oshkosh community.

“It’s really brought people to town and given people a very affordable family outlet,” Albright said. Tickets range from $10 to the VIP experience, she said, and ticket buyers tend to spend money on anything from concessions to gas, restaurant meals and hotel rooms.

The area around the arena has benefited from increased traffic, and while the arena’s economic impact is currently unknown, according to Albright, she said it’s been significant. 

Restaurants and taverns within several blocks of the arena are busy on the nights in which events are scheduled, and hotels have picked up business as well.

“The hotels have benefited in that when the Herd plays, there’s an opposing team plus their family members who need rooms,” Albright said. Ideally, the arena inspires them to stay a bit longer the next day – perhaps go out to breakfast, shop and spend money.

“Really, it’s been something that really has put Oshkosh on the map as far as a destination,” Albright said.

Growing economic impact

The success of the KI Convention Center expansion in downtown Green Bay seems to have launched a spree of improvement projects around the area.

Brad Toll, president and CEO of Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he figured the expanded KI Center would add about $4 million to the local economy in 2016, its first full year in operation. It surpassed that amount by 50 percent and keeps breaking records.

“We did $6 million in 2016. In 2017 it was $7 or $8 million, and it’s exceeding what we were hoping for,” Toll said.

Many of the convention groups they’d hosted in past years were growing, and the Green Bay convention facilities were not.

“Because we’re an NFL city, people think we’re a lot bigger than we are. Sometimes they’re surprised at the size of our convention center,” Toll said. Often it wasn’t that groups weren’t interested in meeting in Green Bay – their groups were just too large for the facilities.

“We knew that expanding the convention center was going to make a big difference for us, and it really has,” he said.

In fact, a major conference-destination organization recently told Toll many national groups submitting Green Bay as one of their preferred conference sites are also submitting cities such as Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Bloomington, Minn. as their alternate choices.

“We would typically not have expected that our hat was in that ring because those are much larger cities than us,” Toll said. “That’s a great opportunity, but you have to have be able to accommodate the needs of groups that size.”

Now that an expanded convention facility is available, many of those groups are coming back.

“That’s really added to the dollars that come from that part of the industry,” Toll said.

And that’s spurring on the competition.

Busy bees

Meeting spots around the area, including Radisson Hotel & Conference Center on Green Bay’s west side and the Rock Garden at the Comfort Suites near Howard, are remodeling or have done so. Tundra Lodge in Ashwaubenon is in the consideration stage as well, according to Toll.

“We’ve seen a lot of our hotel properties update and renovate, so business has been very good, very strong, and the new Titletown (district west of Lambeau Field in Ashwaubenon) has created some new options for people, for special kinds of board meetings, smaller meetings and the like,” Toll said.

The new Rockwood Terrace meeting center in Titletown is one of those, with space for 120. The still-new area called Titletown was formerly known as Titletown District, but the Green Bay Packers have dropped ‘district’ from its name, according to Toll.

Perhaps the most dust will be flying a few blocks east of Titletown on Lombardi Avenue, in the area known as the Stadium District to the east of Lambeau Field. The Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena – which turns 60 next year – is slated to be razed in June 2019. A 120,000-sq. ft. exhibition center will replace its footprint.

“It (the current building) is very disjointed,” Toll said. “There’s 40,000 square feet here, then there’s concession stands, then you go around a ramp and there’s 20,000 square feet over there.” Toll said the jumbled space isn’t an easy sell to groups.

“But being able to replace it with a huge, 120,000-square-foot, all-one-level flat floor space is really going to be fantastic,” he said. “It puts us into markets we weren’t even able to be in before.”

It will be a flexible space – anything from boat shows and firefighting equipment industry expos to sports-related events could be held there.

“We could put several volleyball courts through it, or basketball courts or do fencing, or skating – there’s a lot of  different possibilities for spaces like that,” Toll said. “They’re designed to be incredibly flexible buildings.”

Several new lodging spots have opened in the area in recent years, including four newer hotels in Ashwaubenon alone.

Back in downtown Green Bay near KI Convention Center, another project that’s been in and out of the news in recent years – the historic Hotel Northland renovation – is on schedule to open this fall under the boutique umbrella of Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel.

More rooms mean there must be reasons to use them.

“At the same time you’re building and adding supply (rooms), you need to be adding and protecting the demand (event space) that fills those rooms,” Toll said.

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.