The news and developments from 2014 have set the stage for tremendous opportunity for northeast Wisconsin businesses in the year to come.
In line with our annual retrospective tradition, New North B2B proudly presents our list of the Top Ten stories affecting the region’s business community during the past year.
By Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher
1 Tax Credits for Growth
Tax credits don’t create jobs in and of themselves, but they do make it easier for employers to take the risks associated with establishing new positions. Several northeast Wisconsin employers were awarded economic development tax credits from the state during 2014 to create thousands of new jobs in the region during the next few years.
In October, the Outdoor and Action Sports division of VF Corp. was awarded up to $880,500 in state job creation and job retention tax credits to create up to 70 new jobs in the Fox Cities, a plan associated with the $2.7 million project to expand its Jansport facility in Greenville. That same month, Piping Systems Inc. in Hortonville was awarded up to $350,000 in tax credits as part of an expansion project which is expected to create as many as 119 new jobs, and Baker Cheese Factory Inc. in St. Cloud received up to $800,000 in tax credits for a $7 million plant modernization project which is expected to create as many as 40 new jobs.
Other tax credits awarded to northeast Wisconsin employers included:
☂ Astro Industries Inc., Ashwaubenon, $150,000 for an expansion project to create 20 new jobs;
☂ Bemis Medical Packaging, Oshkosh, $2 million loan for an expansion project which would create 160 new jobs and retain 161 current jobs;
☂ Expera Specialty Solutions LLC, Kaukauna, a $1 million loan for a redevelopment project which will retain up to 800 jobs in Kaukauna;
☂ Technical Prospects, Appleton, $175,000 for an expansion project to create up to 37 new jobs;
☂ Third Avenue Market, Menasha, a $250,000 grant for a new grocery store to create 21 fulltime and 21 part-time jobs;
☂ Frantz Community Investors, Green Bay, a $500,000 grant to redevelop the historic Hotel Northland, which would create up to 160 jobs;
☂ and DealerFire, Oshkosh, $522,000 for an expansion project which could create 123 new jobs.
2 Industrial Construction Boom
Officials numbers won’t be reported by the state until mid-2015, but the trends in building permits issued across northeast Wisconsin communities during 2014 would appear to indicate commercial and industrial building projects in the region are approaching pre-recession levels. In fact, the sheer number of projects appearing on B2B’s popular Build Up pages reached records during the months of November and December since the feature began appearing in early 2002.
A number of large-scale projects were announced and began construction this year, including an 87,000-sq. ft. corporate headquarters and research center for Grande Cheese Company in Fond du Lac, a 110,000-sq. ft. addition to Bemis Medical Packaging in Oshkosh, and a 59,000-sq. ft. plastic blow-molding facility for PolyFlex Inc. in Kaukauna’s NEW Prosperity Center industrial park.
Other substantial projects in the region during 2014 included:
• Con-way Freight, Fond du Lac, a 47,000-sq. ft. freight terminal and service center;
• Holland Cold Storage, Kaukauna, a 42,615-sq. ft. addition to its existing warehousing facility;
• Handling & Conveying Systems, Green Bay, a 33,000-sq. ft. manufacturing facility;
• Jet Air Group, Ashwaubenon, a 32,375-sq. ft. storage hangar and repair center;
• Team Industries, Kaukauna, a 26,020-sq. ft. expansion of the manufacturing facility;
• Agnesian Healthcare, Fond du Lac, a 50,000-sq. ft. addition to its southside medical clinic and a separate 50,000-sq. ft. dialysis center;
• Schreiber Foods Inc., Green Bay, completion of the five-story, 250,000-sq. ft. corporate headquarters in downtown;
• Lake Park Sportzone, Menasha, a 32,000-sq. ft. indoor athletic facility;
• Jansport/VF Outdoor, Greenville, a 19,432-sq. ft. addition to the existing manufacturing facility and office complex;
• Astro Industries, Ashwaubenon, a 20,000-sq. ft. addition to its manufacturing plant;
• Piping Systems Inc., Hortonville, a 65,000-sq. ft. expansion of the manufacturer;
• Shapes Unlimited, Little Chute, a 31,430-sq. ft. addition to the industrial facility;
• Fox Valley Hematology & Oncology, a 60,000-sq. ft. cancer treatment center;
• Lakeland College, Green Bay, a 15,000-sq. ft. satellite campus;
• Holiday Inn Express, Fond du Lac, an 86-room hotel;
• Hampton Inn, Fond du Lac, a 73-room hotel;
• Bay Valley Foods, Green Bay, a 25,000-sq. ft. addition;
• KI Convention Center, Green Bay, a 30,000-sq. ft. addition to the existing downtown exposition facility;
• and Green Bay Packaging Inc., Ashwaubenon, completion of its 240,000-sq. ft. coated products manufacturing plant.
3 WE Energies/WPS Merger
In June, Wisconsin Energy Corp., the parent company of WE Energies, announced plans to acquire Integrys Energy Group Inc., the parent firm of Wisconsin Public Service Corp., in a deal valued at $9.1 billion. Once complete, the combined utility provider would service electric and natural gas utilities for most residential and business users across eastern, northeastern and northcentral Wisconsin under the name WEC Energy Group Inc.
In total, the combined entity will serve more than 4.3 million gas and electric customers across Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, in addition to its Wisconsin markets.
The combined company will also hold a 60 percent stake in American Transmission Co., the organization which maintains the electrical distribution network across the state. Officials from Wisconsin Energy said a combined WEC Energy Group would continue to maintain an operating headquarters in Green Bay. The proposed deal is still working through federal and state regulatory approval, and utility officials anticipate closing on the merger in mid-2015.
4 New Chancellors for UW Schools
New leadership took over the helm of both of the four-year University of Wisconsin Systems schools in northeast Wisconsin during 2014.
In January, UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells announced plans to retire in August after 14 years leading the region’s largest post-secondary academic institution and the third largest in the state with 13,900 students. UW Green Bay Chancellor Thomas Harden made a similar announcement in December 2013, leaving the school at the end of June after having served in UW Green Bay’s top post since 2007.
The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents selected Andrew J. Leavitt, vice president for university advancement at the University of North Georgia and chief executive officer of the University of North Georgia Foundation, to succeed Wells at UW Oshkosh and selected Gary L. Miller, chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, to succeed Harden at UW Green Bay.
Leavitt served in his previous role at the University of North Georgia since 2009, having chaired the university’s strategic plan steering committee and led the merger of two philanthropic foundations to form a single foundation with more than $55 million in assets. He began his position in Oshkosh in November. Miller served as chancellor at UNC-Wilmington since 2011, where he developed the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and established the University Innovation Council. During Miller’s tenure, the university launched an online nursing program and opened a $30 million marine biotechnology business development and research building.
In an unrelated development in early January, the UW System Board of Regents appointed UW Colleges and UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross as the next president of the UW System, succeeding Kevin P. Reilly who resigned the office in late 2013 to advise the American Council on Education.
5 Slate of Lawmaker Retirements
An unusual number of retirements from tenured lawmakers across northeast Wisconsin opened up legislative seats long held by seemingly unbeatable incumbents.
Most notably, Sixth Congressional District Rep. Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac) announced he wouldn’t seek reelection for a 19th term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Petri’s career in Congress spanned back to 1979, and he served as the chairman or ranking member of the House subcommittee on surface transportation for 16 years, and as the chairman or ranking member of the House aviation subcommittee for six years. His seat was filled by State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-Campbellsport).
State Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) also announced his retirement from politics during 2014, ending a nearly 45-year career in Madison that began while in his late Twenties. Ellis served eight terms in the state Senate since 1982 and previously served five terms in the state Assembly from 1970 to 1980, while also serving on the City of Neenah Common Council from 1969 to 1975. Roger Roth, a Republican from Appleton, won the seat for the state’s 19th Senate District to replace Ellis.
State Assembly Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah) left the state’s lower chambers in 2014 after 12 terms – not to retire – but to unseat three-term Neenah Mayor George Scherck in April’s non-partisan general elections. Kaufert served in the Assembly for 24 years.
Additionally, State Assembly Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) retired after 14 years in office, and Rep. John Klenke (R-Green Bay) stepped down after four years in office.
6 Walmart Reprisal on Broadway
The drawn out saga of Walmart’s attempts to construct a 154,000-sq. ft. store in Green Bay’s downtown Broadway shopping district concluded in late July after the city’s common council denied a request to rezone the property on which the retailer planned to build. In a statement issued by Walmart explaining its intent to not pursue the matter further, the company referenced “political and administrative resistance we faced within the city government.”
The issue has been a source of contention among residents and Broadway business owners as well as between city staff and elected officials since the proposal first came up in late 2013.
Walmart filed its development plans with the city in early January, but the city’s plan commission swiftly rejected the proposal, establishing guidelines limiting Walmart to a smaller store. In early May Walmart filed a revised plan with the city for a smaller retail center on the former Larsen Green industrial site, a plan more widely supported by some members of the city council who argued the store could attract additional mixed-use development to the site.
Following a May 18 recommendation from a city council advisory committee to approve the plan, the city’s plan commission once again recommended denying Walmart’s request for a zoning change in early June. The matter came before the City of Green Bay Common Council later in June – when the governing body postponed action on the rezoning request – but eventually voted against it in early July.
7 Fox River PCB Contamination Clean Up Clears More Hurdles
In late March, state and federal officials arrived at a $54 million settlement with several Fox Cities paper companies and two municipal utilities for PCB contamination abatement costs in the Fox River. Nearly $46 million will be used toward clean up of natural resource damages to the waterway, while about $8 million was placed in a fund managed by the state to cover any future costs of supervising ongoing cleanup work.
Liability for the charges broke down as follows: $14.7 million by U.S. Paper Mills Corp.; $13.7 million by Menasha Corp.; $12.2 million by WTMI Company; $5.2 million by City of Appleton; $5.2 million by Neenah-Menasha Sewerage Commission; and $3 million by CBC Coating, Inc. The federal Department of Justice indicated the parties have already paid about $70 million towards the project, and this settlement would end their involvement in this suit.
In a related matter, Appleton-based Appvion – formerly Appleton Papers – paid $6 million in cleanup costs in September and entered into a funding agreement with three other firms to pay as much as $18 million more during the next two years to settle any further liabilities related to cleanup costs for the Lower Fox River.
8 Various Schools Pass Building Referenda
A number of successful borrowing referenda from northeast Wisconsin K-12 school districts will pave the way for more than $100 million in new educational facility construction over the next couple of years.
Voters in Green Bay approved $20.1 million in borrowing for various capital improvements across the district, including: $6.7 million for renovations to Washington Middle School; another $7.2 million for upgrades at Franklin Middle School; and $6.2 million to support various improvements at Fort Howard, Tank, Nicolet and Chappell elementary schools.
Voters in the Village of Ashwaubenon approved a four-part referendum to borrow $20.9 million for various capital projects, including an $8 million auditorium at Ashwaubenon High School.
Also during April elections, voters in the Howard-Suamico School District approved two separate referenda to borrow a total of $13.4 million for security and infrastructure upgrades to various schools in the district, as well as a new swimming pool at Lineville Intermediate School.
Back in February, voters in Appleton approved borrowing $25 million for renovations and additions to various schools in the district for enhanced science and technical education space, improved security and mobile technology devices for all high school students.
In November general elections, voters in the Ripon School District approved borrowing $29.1 million to construct a combined middle school and high school.
Other referenda allowing school districts to exceed their state-imposed revenue authority passed in Oshkosh, where voters consented to an additional $3.95 million per year for five years, and in Oakfield, where voters approved an additional $1 million for each of the next three years and then an additional $1.2 million for the following three years.
9 Important Community Redevelopment Projects
Various redevelopment projects announced during 2014 aim to restore many of the region’s treasured landmark buildings to a meaningful, taxable re-use.
Commonwealth Companies of Fond du Lac announced a $2.3 million renovation of the 90-year-old former Retlaw Theatre in downtown Fond du Lac, a transformation that will ultimately create a mixed-use commercial and retail facility with 10 apartments in the upper levels. In June, the City of Fond du Lac was awarded a $400,000 Community Development Investment Grant from Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to help fund the project.
That same month, the City of Menasha received a similar grant of $250,000 to help Third Street Market owners Mike Novak and Paul Fassbender pursue a $2.6 million renovation of the former Ninneman’s SuperValu Foods, which closed in 2005.
Back in March the state awarded a $500,000 grant to the City of Green Bay to assist private developer Frantz Community Investors with a $35 million project to redevelop the historic Hotel Northland. Plans call for the 90-year-old building to be transformed into a 170-room, high-end boutique hotel during 2015, adding more than $12 million to the city’s property tax base.
In April the City of Oshkosh received a $250,000 grant to help automotive web retailer DealerFire renovate a more than 100-year-old building in downtown Oshkosh for its new headquarters. That project wrapped up in late December.
Lastly, the historic Meyer Theater in downtown Green Bay received $300,000 from the city for a $3 million expansion project. Construction began earlier this year and includes a more than $1 million renovation to the top floor as a new corporate office for Breakthrough Fuel.
10 Highway 41 Improvements
The highly visible U.S. Highway 41 expansion project moved another year closer to completion in 2014 as work wrapped in Winnebago County, and critical interchange reconstruction projects reopened to traffic in Brown County.
Most notably, the flyover ramps at State Road 29 on Green Bay’s west side opened to traffic after two years of work, while construction began for similar interchanges at State Road 172 in Ashwaubenon and at the northern terminus of Interstate 43. Another integral interchange project was completed at Lineville Road north of Green Bay, and a new Hansen Road overpass reopened in Ashwaubenon.
In Outagamie County, state transportation officials rebuilt the State Road 47/Richmond Street interchange on the north side of Appleton, as well as began construction on the $550 million State Road 441 Tri-County Project in the Fox Cities. That project will expand U.S. Highway 10/WIS 441 from four to six lanes for a nearly 6-mile stretch, including a new bridge over Little Lake Butte des Morts and interchange upgrades. The state expects construction to be finished by fall 2019.
2014 Honorable Mention
Certainly a sign of an improving economy, layoffs weren’t as widespread and the numbers weren’t quite as shocking in 2014 as they’d been in previous years. The most significant announcement came in April from Oshkosh Corp., which would eliminate nearly 760 employees as a result of defense spending cuts stemming from wrapping up military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two anchor stores closed in Fond du Lac’s Forest Mall this past year, affecting a total of about 80 employees. Sears closed in October, while J.C. Penney Co. shut down in May. In June, Connecticut-based Cenveo Corp. closed the former National Envelope facility in Appleton, eliminating 148 union jobs and 24 salaried positions.
Regional Cancer Expertise
Northeast Wisconsin heightened its profile as a regional center of cancer expertise during 2014. In October, Fox Valley Hematology & Oncology broke ground on a 60,000-sq. ft. cancer treatment facility on the north side of Appleton, which it expects to open this summer. Later that month, ThedaCare officials announced plans for a similar facility near its Encircle Health campus in Appleton. That $44 million project should be complete in 2016.
In August, the National Cancer Institute awarded a $12.5 million grant to a collaborative cancer research effort between St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center in Green Bay, Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation and Gundersen Medical Foundation of La Crosse. The health care organizations are using the funds to improve access to cancer trials for more patients.
Oshkosh Economic Development
Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. formally organized to serve businesses in the City of Oshkosh and adjacent towns in Winnebago County.
St. Norbert College Announces MBA Program
A $7 million bequest from the widow of the Schneider Logistics founder in February will create the Donald J. Schneider School of Business and Economics at St. Norbert College in De Pere, and will enable it to become the fourth academic institution in northeast Wisconsin to offer a master’s of business administration degree when the program launches in fall 2015. Existing M.B.A. programs in northeast Wisconsin are available through the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Lakeland College and Concordia University Wisconsin.
Fox Cities Expo Center Crawls Forward
In April, the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region approved a $5 million investment to support the Fox Cities Exhibition Center proposal for a 62,000-sq. ft. facility connected to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton. The foundation said the funds are not a grant, referring to it instead as an investment to be repaid from revenue generated by a dedicated room tax paid by visitors to Fox Cities hotels. As the year closed, the Appleton City Council was debating purchasing land owned by Outagamie County for the site of the expo center, but delayed the vote into early 2015.
ThedaCare – CHN Merger
In January, Berlin-based Community Health Network entered into an agreement with Appleton-based ThedaCare to merge the two health care systems. Community Health Network included Berlin Memorial Hospital and Wild Rose Community Memorial Hospital; 10 clinics; its CHN Medical Group of more than 35 physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants; and a total of about 800 employees system wide. ThedaCare consisted of five hospitals including Appleton Medical Center, Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah and New London Family Medical Center; nearly 20 clinics and outpatient centers; and nearly 6,100 employees system wide.
Appleton Wheel Tax
In September, the Appleton Common Council approved a $20 wheel tax, which will be charged to vehicles registered in the city beginning in 2015 to help pay for street reconstruction projects. Residents had been critical of the city’s special assessments policy, which charged property owners for part of the cost if a road adjacent to their property needed replacing. The state reports 85,657 cars are registered in Appleton, which means the tax could generate about $1.7 million annually. Other Wisconsin municipalities charging a wheel tax include: Beloit, $10; Janesville, $10; Milwaukee, $20; and St. Croix, $10.
Lawrence University Record Gift
Lawrence University in Appleton received a $25 million anonymous donation in September to support student scholarships, marking the largest gift in school history. The dollar-for-dollar matching gift will provide $50 million in additional endowment to support scholarships for at least 50 students annually.