The banks of the Fox River get a facelift in several northeast Wisconsin communities, altering once blighted industrial land into the region’s most attractive real estate
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch, New North B2B editor
The first paper mills on the Fox River in the 1850s probably jarred the landscape with their looming structures and billowing smokestacks. More than 160 years later, most of those mills have been abandoned, razed, or repurposed as the riverscape undergoes a renaissance.
The face of the river has changed mostly for the better over the last few years. Blighted factory sites and brownfields are being restored and repurposed for the benefit of the communities and the people who live there. The river has been cleaned up after decades of dumped waste and chemical sludge from ancient papermaking processes. Creative community leaders see the riverfront as a place to gather, recreate and escape from the day-to-day grind.
“The water’s always been a draw, and it continues to be a draw,” said Karen Harkness, director of community and economic development with the City of Appleton.
In some cases, plans for the riverfront are still only a proposal on paper, but in a few cases, the rebirth has taken tangible form. Throughout the Fox River Valley, the spirit of renewal is alive and well.
RiverHeath – Appleton
Ten years in the making, the living-working-leisuring community of RiverHeath on the east side of the Fox River near downtown Appleton is taking shape. The third of its four buildings opens later this summer, as does its river trail.
Built from the ground up on the site the former Consolidated Paper and MI Drilling plants, the mixed-use commercial/residential complex sits on 15 acres of riverbank between Telulah Park and College Avenue.
RiverHeath opened its second building, The Prairie, last October, consisting of 40 apartments and a sprinkling of first-floor commercial spaces. Residents can have a mocha at Tempest Coffee before heading over to work at Menlo Park coworking space, an office-away-from-home for those who work remotely. Later they can pop over to Salon Elan for a haircut, rent a kayak from Recyclist, and cap off the day at Mr. Brews Taphouse for a craft beer.
The third building, Courtyard By Marriott, is on track to open in August. It will offer 97 hotel rooms, event spaces and a bistro lunch spot with river views.
“The hotel is elevated a little bit because we’re up on a hill,” said Mark Geall, principle with Tanesay Development, the firm developing RiverHeath. “It’s a very neat place to check out the riverfront.”
The Recyclist, a sports rental shop, rents bicycles and kayaks, and a boat launch nearby garners river access for boats. There’s one more 4- or 5-acre parcel left, and Tanesay will wait until 2018 to start building on that.
“We’re going to take a little pause and let the hotel open this summer and start the next phase next year,” Geall said.
It’s to be another residential/commercial combo. Geall says he hopes it could offer a space for special events as well as an ice-skating rink.
“We’ve always dreamed of an ice-skating rink,” he said. “We couldn’t be more happy with the way the riverfront has come alive.”
Eagle Point – Appleton
At the former Foremost Dairy site off of John Street on the river’s west side, Madison-based firms Alexander Company and Iconica plan an 8-acre development called Eagle Point.
Not to be confused with the Landing at Eagle Flats across the river off South Lawe Street, Eagle Point is a three-phase project that includes a $17.8 million, 99-room senior-living facility in its first phase. Phase II is a housing option, and the third phase has yet to be determined, according to Harkness.
“We just broke ground on the senior living facility at the end of May, so a year from now, next June, we’ll be ready for a ribbon cutting,” Harkness said. She described plans for a state-of-the-art senior living community that include a salon, recreation, greenspace and other amenities. Alexander Company also developed the Historic Fox River Mills apartments.
Meanwhile at the Eagle Flats development site where the former Riverside Paper mill stood, the Fox River Navigational System Authority plans an interactive visitors center at Lock No. 3, according to FRNSA and Harkness.
And a new agreement with the Canadian National railway will more or less tie these three areas – Eagle Point, Eagle Flats and RiverHeath – together via Newberry Trail. The agreement lets Appleton control three railroad trestles on the river that are no longer used.
“Our desire is to make those into pedestrian trails and be able to increase our connectivity,” Harkness said.
Some 25,000 people run, walk, bike and Rollerblade the Heritage Parkway Trail in Little Chute, according to Village Administrator James Fenlon. That’s twice the population of Little Chute.
“Whether you go out there on a weekend or a weeknight or even in the winter, you’ll see a lot of wildlife and people and some natural places that would make you think you’re not in the Fox Cities,” Fenlon said.
It’s clear that the Fox River is drawing area residents outside to rove its trail system.
A big part of what’s new on the Little Chute river trail is the replacement for the old Mill Street bridge.
“It was a vehicular bridge that was no longer safe for passenger vehicles and had been closed for years,” Fenlon said. It’s now a spiffy new pedestrian lift bridge which crosses the river’s navigational channel.
“That whole area has gotten kind of a little breath of fresh air and some new amenities with the trail and the new bridge and the locktender’s house being refurbished to its original state,” he said.
As of last year, overnight guests can rent the locktender’s house at Mill Street through AirBnB.com, and reviews have been positive.
Little Chute actually has three locktender houses, one for each of its locks. Only one, the 1909 Little Chute Lock House on Mill Street, was refurbished by volunteers with the Fox River Heritage Parkway organization and is open for overnight stays.
In 1984, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would abandon the Fox River’s 17 locks. Shortly after, the Fox River Navigational System Authority was established with the intent of refurbishing the locks.
Village of Little Chute staff have been working with regional partners and other stakeholders along the canal system to look at expanding that area with more recreational opportunities and amenities, Fenlon said. Boat slips or a boat launch might be future options.
“It’s really driven the conversation around here and given us an idea on things to come,” he said.
Fenlon said the village is considering extending the boardwalk from where the 1.25-mile trail ends at Heesakker Park across the river to Kaukauna. He said the earliest that would happen would be 2019.
Village officials are working on a downtown plan which includes finding ways to connect the river to the downtown not only from a pedestrian and transportation perspective, but visually as well, Fenlon said.
“It’s not that far removed from the river, and it feels like it is part of the river,” Fenlon said. “With a few connections, it could be easily seen as part of the river.”
With the completion of the riverwalk on the north side of the Fox River in downtown Oshkosh, plans are afoot to continue the promenade on the south side.
“The plan is for 1½ to 2 miles worth of riverwalk, and we’ve done about 40, maybe 50 percent of it,” said Allen Davis, director of community development with the City of Oshkosh.
Continuation involves getting easements or land from property owners, as well as obtaining permits from the state Department of Natural Resources, Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Coast Guard. Financing the project also includes winning grants from various sources rather than placing the entire cost on the shoulders of taxpayers, Davis said.
“We did that successfully with the hotel project on the north side where we built the docks along the hotel and over to Becket’s restaurant, and we got more grants to build more docks to the west for future development of the (adjacent) Marion Road area,” he said.
This summer the city is extending riverwalk in the Morgan District on south riverbank near the site of the former Morgan Door Co.
“We have had to get permission and acquisitions from property owners, and almost all of them have donated it because they believe in the project and see it as an improvement for their property on the water,” Davis said.
Morgan Partners, the developers behind the Morgan District, are among those property owners that have donated land for the river walk. The Morgan District extends to about a quarter mile of river frontage some 1,500 feet deep on the Fox River.
Five years ago, the Morgan Partners bought the 27-acre Morgan Door Co. site and demolished its century-old structures. Currently, Oshkosh Corp. has been leasing part of the site to park its military trucks.
The development group is planning a mix of residential and commercial, to include a grocery store, with residential closer to the river and commercial closer to nearby Oregon Street.
“Our first phase would be 120 apartment units and a 25,000-square-foot grocery store,” said Grant Schwab, one of the principles with Morgan Partners.
Schwab said he hopes that they can move forward within the next six to 12 months.
“Right now with the economy the way it is, it’s so tough to get anything done and trying to get builders to bid things out,” he said. “You can’t get people to bid out contracts, and when you do, you can’t get them to hold their price for 90 or 120 days.”
Davis estimates the city has two more years worth of construction to go on the river walk. “We’ve submitted another grant application for construction for 2018,” he said. “We’re hoping that’ll be enough to finish the construction in the Morgan District.”
Davis said the city has historically done about $1.5 million worth of construction per year because after that, grant funds usually max out.
If all goes well, the riverwalk could eventually wrap around the former Pioneer Resort property.
“We’re working on a design for the riverwalk to go around that island, around the marina and the breakwater in that area,” Davis said.
Downtown Green Bay
The Fox River runs through downtown Green Bay, separating the east from the west side of the city. The Broadway District anchors the dining and shopping area on the west side of the river, while Washington Street is the dining and shopping anchor on the east.
Over the last few years, the city’s downtown groups have worked hard to emphasize the river as an asset to the city. Lofts, condos, restaurants and even a children’s museum have sprung up there, and a few years ago, the city reconstructed its downtown riverwalk, adding The CityDeck boardwalk as a place for dining, music events and even outdoor yoga.
“We’ve been focusing on revitalizing our downtown and on making sure the river is a strong part of that,” said Kevin Vonck, director of economic development for the City of Green Bay.
On the east side, at the intersection of Walnut and Washington streets, the Metreau Apartments opened late last year. Featuring river views and lots of steel and glass, the $15 million project included about 100 market-rate and higher-rent apartments. Most are filled already. The ground level has several commercial spaces, none of which have been leased yet, Vonck said.
The Shipyard – Green Bay
Across the river from the south end of downtown, plans for an entertainment complex called The Shipyard are stirring excitement. A boat slip divides the 13-acre mostly brownfield site on South Broadway.
On the south side, plans call for a $9 million outdoor stadium to be leased to the Green Bay Bullfrogs baseball team and used for high school games, concerts, festivals and community events. Big Top Baseball, which owns the Bullfrogs, has agreed to bring in a minor league soccer team to use the field as well, according to Vonck.
Mark Skogen, owner of De Pere-based Festival Foods, has proposed a $2.5 million indoor concert venue at The Shipyard with capacity to hold 2,000 people. Additionally, Anduzzi’s Sports Club, a local bar and restaurant, is planning to build and operate a bar with waterfront access.
“We’re working with those parties to get agreements wrapped up soon,” Vonck said. “(The city) will also be putting $1 million into that neighborhood over the next few years.”
Plans aren’t cemented yet, but Vonck said multifamily housing and office space are considerations. Vonck said he hopes the project can begin this fall, pending financing.
“The Shipyard is our last big riverfront piece in the downtown,” he said.
Neenah: From trash to trails
The biggest change to Neenah’s downtown is the building housing Plexus Corp.’s new design center. Crews put the finishing touches on the $9 million, four-story Gateway building at Wisconsin and Main streets this spring, and its 200-plus employees moved into their new home in June.
“It has fantastic views of Little Lake Butte des Morts, and even if it isn’t on the river, it certainly benefits from the river,” said Chris Haese, Neenah’s community development director.
The influx of professionals positively impacts the downtown’s restaurants and shops, he said.
“They’re engineers, so their disposable income is probably higher than some other types of employment,” Haese said.
Between that building and the south edge of the lakefront, demolition of the former waste incinerating Fox Valley Energy Center finished this spring. It clears the way, some hope, for developing Arrowhead Park. The site sits near the former Glatfelter Paper Mill, which now houses the corporate headquarters for Plexus.
The 20-acre site boasts a half-mile of shoreline on Little Lake Butte des Morts. An ad hoc citizens advisory panel led by the parks director is helping determine the community’s desires, such as trails, boat slips, fishing piers and a community-use building.
“With the removal of the facilities, accessibility to the park has improved, and we’re now at a point where we have a site we can manicure into a community asset,” Haese said. “It’s been viewed as a diamond in the rough for many, many years … and now we’re at a point where it’s ready to be cut and polished.”
The Fox River shed another unattractive blemish this year as Kimberly gets closer to sculpting a new landscape.
Plans are in place to develop a small part – about 8.5 acres – of the nearly 100-acre former NewPage paper mill site along the south shore of the river.
Area closer to North Main and Maes Avenue was recently approved for mostly single-family attached dwellings, or condo-duplexes. The area closer to the river is known as Cedars West, and is proposed to consist of high-end single-family homes, with nearly a third of them on river frontage, according to Rick Hermus, former village administrator for Kimberly.
“We’re working behind the scenes on some concept plans and a potential developer’s agreement, with those plans to be presented at some point in the next couple months to the planning commission and board for consideration,” he said.
Like many other Fox River cities, Kimberly puts a high priority on park spaces and areas to walk and run. The citizens’ advisory committee came up with a plan for trails and greenspace alongside the residential developments.
“We’ll be incorporating some open space at points along the river, along with a trail that will go from our Sunset Park to our community bridge, weaving through the development along the riverfront,” Hermus said.
NewPage sold the closed mill site to a demolition company in 2010. The demolition company wanted to play a role in developing it along with the village, but those good intentions didn’t work out, Hermus said. Eventually the village bought the site for $5 million, closing the sale this year. The village created a tax incremental finance district for the area and received a $500,000 Idle Industrial Sites grant from Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to assist with redevelopment.
“Since the village acquired this property January 1, interest has been very high, including a lot of interest from potential developers,” Hermus said. “Our biggest challenge right now is making sure we do this appropriately and do it in a sustainable manner, according to the vision that was created in the community back in 2013.”
Hermus said the development’s eventual value could be between $25 to $35 million.