The headlines and developments from 2016 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 presents our list of the Top Ten stories affecting the region’s business community during the past year.
1 Development continues to surge
That’s not the sound of a record skipping.
The top story from B2B’s 2015 list repeats as the leading business headline of 2016, as new construction and business expansion continued to generate more taxable property value at an even greater pace than the year prior.
Readers of B2B’s signature Build Up department noticed a record number of building projects occurring across northeast Wisconsin during the past year, with as many as 80 under construction at a single time. Even heading into the winter months at the end of the year, there’s been little loss of momentum to the number of building permits issued for new commercial and industrial construction.
While official property valuation totals for the past year won’t be available from the state until this next July, preliminary estimates from B2B indicate more than a half billion dollars in building permits for commercial, industrial and institutional projects were issued across our readership area alone during 2016. While the 2015 construction boom was the first definitive surge in development in the wake of the recession of 2008 and 2009, more recent growth continues to indicate that pent-up demand to expand facilities can’t wait any longer, and that businesses are eager to spend on new improvements before interest rates begin to trend upward.
In total, nearly 200 building projects were featured on B2B’s Build Up pages throughout 2016. Here’s an abbreviated list of some of the more notable projects:
• Frantz Community Investors began the $30 million project to renovate the historic Hotel Northland in downtown Green Bay.
• Alliance Laundry Systems in Ripon initiated a $58 million project to expand its corporate headquarters, build additional manufacturing space and construct an additional warehouse. The company expects to create an additional 200 jobs in Ripon in the next five years.
• Festival Foods completed work on two new grocery stores in Menasha and on Green Bay’s northeast side, at a price tag of $8 million for each store.
• Navitus Health Solutions completed a $13 million, 120,000-sq. ft. expansion of its call center campus in the town of Grand Chute.
• Construction began on the $13 million Gateway Building in downtown Neenah which will house the design center for Plexus Corp.
• Sierra Coating Technologies finished a $13 million, 33,600-sq. ft. expansion of its manufacturing facility in De Pere.
• Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac completed a 53,000-sq. ft. expansion to its machining plant.
• Nestle started a $30 million, 300,000-sq. ft. warehouse and distribution facility in Little Chute’s industrial park.
2 Highway 41 revamp completed
Brown County drivers have been patiently awaiting the completion of the Interstate 41 expansion project, which began in 2012. State Department of Transportation officials staged a brief ceremony in November which marked the end of the multi-year project which cost more than a half billion dollars.
Coupled with the Winnebago County expansion on the highway that began in 2009, the total project invested more than $500 million to expand the main artery of northeast Wisconsin to six lanes, reconstructed 15 interchanges – including three elaborate projects composed of new flyover ramps – and included replacing more than a dozen intersecting overpasses and underpasses.
3 Gas prices rise on closed pipeline
Chicago-based West Shore Pipe Line Co. shut down its fuel pipeline serving Green Bay from Milwaukee indefinitely in June after a temporary closure was implemented in March to repair damaged portions of the pipeline in Washington County.
As a result, petroleum prices in the Green Bay, Fox Cities and Oshkosh areas were about 20 cents per gallon higher than they would have been for much of summer as the region’s gasoline supply had to be delivered by tanker trucks. Fuel prices returned to normal levels on par with the rest of the state by late October.
In an effort to address any potential gasoline shortages in northeast Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker implemented an emergency declaration allowing tanker truck drivers to work additional hours beyond those limited by state law for fuel runs to the region.
4 Outagamie Sheriff’s Dept. debacle
In one of the more bizarre stories of the year, the Outagamie County Board of Supervisors voted in July to acquire a property in Appleton’s Northeast Business Park for a new sheriff’s department facility through the eminent domain process, even though the seller of the property had already received an accepted offer from a private employer that was reportedly higher than the county’s bid on the property.
Fond du Lac-based J. F. Ahern Co. planned to purchase the Goodland Drive facility to expand its Fox Cities field operations for its fire protection division and add nearly 100 new jobs to the Fox Cities. Economic development and other community leaders raised concerns that J. F. Ahern might choose to expand elsewhere, as well as indicating the decision from the county didn’t demonstrate support for economic development.
A few days after the county board’s decision, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson vetoed the resolution, halting the eminent domain process and effectively placing the property back in the hands of the owner to sell.
In September, the county board ultimately decided to locate a new sheriff’s department facility on property the county already owns near the intersection of Casaloma Drive and State Road 15 in the town of Grand Chute. Construction is expected to begin this spring and be complete by 2018.
5 Fox Crossing incorporation
In April, residents in the western portion of the Town of Menasha voted to incorporate into the newly established Village of Fox Crossing, marking the final necessary approval in an incorporation process that began in early 2015. A total of 86 percent of residents living in the portion of the town west of the Fox River voted in favor of incorporation.
In June the village held a special election to select its inaugural board of trustees, electing Dale Youngquist as the first village president of Fox Crossing.
By fall, the remaining portion of the Town of Menasha on the east side of Little Lake Butte des Morts approved being absorbed into Fox Crossing.
6 Sen. Rick Gudex passing
In the early morning hours of October 12, State Sen. Rick Gudex (R-Fond du Lac) died unexpectedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In the days after the apparent suicide, Gudex’s family indicated in a statement that he suffered from increasing depression.
Gudex, 48, had previously served as mayor for the City of Mayville and as the City of Fond du Lac Common Council President. He was elected to a four-year term in the state legislature’s upper house in 2012, but did not seek re-election in 2016.
While in the state legislature, Gudex was a driving force behind creating and funding Wisconsin’s Fast Forward program, an initiative through the state Department of Workforce Development to provide training for a variety of job skills in high demand across the state.
Fond du Lac Republican Dan Feyen won the Nov. 8 general election over Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris to replace Gudex in the senate.
7 Fox Cities Expo Center underway
In a story that’s perennially been on B2B’s Top Ten list over the past four years, construction finally began in October on the 65,000-sq. ft. Fox Cities Exhibition Center on Lawrence Street near Jones Park in downtown Appleton. Once complete later this fall, the $28 million facility will include 30,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space and an additional 7,300 square feet of flexible pre-function space, along with additional meeting rooms and a main welcome area.
The design features an outdoor pedestrian plaza and an 82-ft. tall LED-lit tower. An enclosed skywalk over Lawrence Street will connect the expo center to Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, which will manage the convention center.
8 Right to Work flip flop
Wisconsin’s Right to Work law which went into effect in mid-2015 was struck down in early April by Dane County Circuit Court Judge William Foust, who issued a judgment determining the law to be unconstitutional. Seven weeks later on May 24, Wisconsin’s Third District Court of Appeals granted a stay, overturning Judge Foust’s ruling.
Right to Work prohibits union security agreements between employers and labor unions that require an employee’s membership in a union or payment of union dues as a condition of employment.
9 Rescue of FdL’s Retlaw Hotel
Downtown Fond du Lac’s historic 95-year-old Retlaw Plaza Hotel closed abruptly in late 2015 after falling behind on tax and utility payments, needing a number of costly repairs and eventually coming under federal receivership.
In late June, Iowa-based Frantz Community Investors – the same group currently undertaking the nearly $30 million renovation of Hotel Northland in downtown Green Bay – placed the winning bid in an online auction to acquire the Retlaw for $908,250.
The developers began renovations later in the year, planning to invest as much as $20 million more into refurbishing the historic property into a luxury boutique hotel. The group is planning to complete construction work sometime this spring and reopen the hotel by mid-year.
10 Green Bay Shipyard development
City of Green Bay officials are close to developing an entertainment district in a blighted former industrial area south of Mason Street between Broadway and the Fox River.
In October, the city’s common council created a tax incremental finance district to support much of the up-front costs of a $9 million stadium development for the Green Bay Bullfrogs baseball team. Big Top Baseball – the entity which owns the Northwoods League baseball team – will contribute $1 million toward the construction cost and will lease the stadium from the city for 20 years at an approximate cost of $4.5 million to help pay back a portion of the TIF borrowing.
The development plans for what’s being called The Shipyard outdoor events center and entertainment district also include a $2 million Anduzzi’s Sports Club restaurant and a $2.5 million indoor concert venue which will be developed by Festival Foods CEO Mark Skogen. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and be ready for the opening of the 2018 baseball season.
2016 Honorable Mention
• In December, Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt pled guilty to three charges related to illegal campaign contributions between 2003 and 2014. The charges stem from an investigation of Schmitt’s campaign finance reports and include making false statements on campaign finance reports and attempting to accept funds in excess of the allowable contribution limit of $1,040 from an individual. Schmitt was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and ordered to pay a $4,000 fine, as well as forfeiting the more than $26,000 remaining in his campaign fund. Schmitt issued a statement indicating he failed to accurately record and verify donations and acknowledged he wasn’t aware of the campaign contribution limits.
• In November, Green Bay-based Nicolet National Bank announced a deal to acquire Neenah-based First National Bank-Fox Valley in a partial cash/partial stock deal estimated at nearly $77 million, creating a combined financial institution with nearly $2.7 billion in assets and expanding Nicolet’s presence in the Fox Cities and Oshkosh. The transaction is expected to be complete by the second quarter 2017.
• In February, Forest Mall in Fond du Lac was sold by Ohio-based shopping mall developer WP Glimcher to ATR Corinth Partners of Dallas for $30 million in a package deal that included a mall outside of Atlanta. The mall lost two of its five anchor stores in the past two years, and mall traffic has diminished in the 43-year-old shopping center. A few months after purchasing the property, the new owners began developing a few outlots at the southeast corner of the property to attract national retailers Mattress Firm, Noodles & Co. and Dunkin’ Donuts.
• In June, the Green Bay Packers reported record revenues from the 2015-16 fiscal year ending March 31 of nearly $409 million, driving record income of $48.9 million, up 68 percent from fiscal year 2014-15 earnings of $29.2 million. Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy indicated record stadium tour attendance of 175,000 patrons increased sharply from 130,000 visitors the prior year. The franchise reported a corporate reserve of $275 million, providing a solid foundation for future operations and investment.
• In July, the City of Oshkosh approved an agreement with the owners of the former Morgan Door Co. property for a $55 million redevelopment of the 27-acre parcel on the south side of the Fox River. The plan includes residential neighborhoods, a mixed-use commercial and retail district and public walkway along the river bank, and could possibly involve as much as $38.8 million in public funding in the form of new roads, other infrastructure, and tax incremental financing. The first stage of the plan – a $16.1 million mixed-use building with 120 apartments and an Urban Market grocery store – would be built along the riverfront in 2017. Four additional phases of the project would be developed between 2018 and 2021.
• In December, the boards of directors for both Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce and Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp. agreed to merge the two organizations into one entity. The combined group is conducting a national search for a CEO, and plans to complete much of the merger work by this coming spring.