Top Ten of 2011
By Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher
Following all of the excitement of the elections in 2010 which shifted partisan power at both the national and federal levels of government, the year 2011 didn’t disappoint in delivering even more dynamic developments in the northeast Wisconsin business community.
From protests at the statehouse in Madison to a smattering of recall elections which garnered global attention, the past year featured a number of positive developments which may have the potential to become the bedrock on which a brighter future will rest.
As we have done each of the past 10 years at New North B2B magazine, we’ve compiled a list of the top state and local news stories affecting the business community in northeast Wisconsin during the past 12 months. These are the topics discussed around the office water cooler, in the break room or at board meetings, and are the issues that are likely to impact the business landscape of the region for years to come. So without further delay, the following is our list of the Top Ten business stories in the B2B coverage area for 2011.
1 Chaos at the Capitol
What amounted to the most upheaval in Madison since the anti-war protests of the 1960s, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker unveiled legislation early February which increased the health insurance premium and retirement plan contributions of public employees across Wisconsin.
Known as Act 10, the law was aimed at allowing the state, municipalities, counties, schools and technical colleges to more easily balance their budgets by affecting the personnel costs which attribute a majority of annual budget increases each year. What ensued was a never-before-seen walkout of 14 Senate Democrats, who fled the state to avoid a vote on the measure; weeks of protests at the capitol building which summoned tens of thousands from around the state to Madison; and national attention which attracted the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a variety of national union leaders.
Several school districts around the state – including Kimberly and Freedom locally – declared “sick outs” on Feb. 18 as faculty decided en masse not to report for work in protest of the legislation.
Compounding the issue, Walker presented his version of a 2011-2013 biennial budget in early March that attempted to cure the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall by trimming $1.5 billion in aid to public schools and local government through the provisions of Act 10.
Without Democrats present to take a vote, Republicans in the state Senate approved an amended version of the state budget repair bill on March 9 that included no fiscal provisions but did rescind certain opportunities to collectively bargain for health insurance and retirement pension contributions. Perceived as a deceptive “end-around” by opponents of the measure, the action enraged foes of Act 10 and even led to death threats against certain legislators, including Sen. Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac).
In the wake of the measure, a number of public employee unions renegotiated their existing contracts with employers, including the Green Bay School Board, which was able to cut nearly $15 million in each of the next two years; the City of Kaukauna, which was able to cut nearly $215,000 in each of the next two years; the Oshkosh School Board, which trimmed an estimated $4 million for the 2011-12 school year; the City of Green Bay, which saved as much as $600,000 for the remainder of 2011 and as much as $1 million in each of 2012 and 2013; and Outagamie County, which cut a total of $7.1 million during the next two years.
In a later chapter on the budget issue, state Department of Administration Sec. Mike Huebsch sent out a letter in late October asking state agencies to cut an additional $126 million from the current 2011-13 biennial budget, on top of the more than $174 million in cuts approved when legislators ultimately ratified the two-year budget in late June. The request came over concerns the state couldn’t generate sufficient tax revenue to support program spending due to economic challenges which have curtailed consumer spending.
2 Highway 41 expansion project progress
Following up on one of our top stories from 2010, the multi-hundred million dollar expansion of U.S. Highway 41 in Brown and Winnebago counties resumed in late February when the Wisconsin Department of Transportation closed the Scheuring Road interchange in De Pere for a $14.7 million project to reconstruct the interchange, overpass and construct roundabouts at the ramp terminals. That project was completed in late September.
Also in late February, work began to demolish the 9th Avenue overpass in Oshkosh, as well as to reconstruct the on and off ramps and expand the highway to six lanes on the six-mile segment from WIS 26 north to Witzel Avenue. The $53 million project was partially reopened in time for the EAA AirVenture convention in late July, with the remainder completed by November.
In late March, work to demolish the Breezewood Lane overpass in Neenah, as well as to reconstruct the on and off ramps to the highway. The $56 million project included widening southbound US 41 to three lanes between Breezewood and U.S. Highway 45. In early April, the US 41/45 interchange near Oshkosh was closed to begin work on a free-flowing replacement interchange that won’t be completed until June 2012. The U.S. 45 overpass opened in November, as did the southbound exit ramp from US 45 to US 41.
In June, work began on the construction of a free-flowing replacement interchange with WIS 29 in Green Bay, as well as the construction of the County RK frontage road on the south side of WIS 29 near the interchange. The new roadway, along with a County Road J underpass, opened to traffic in late November.
Lastly, in late September, work began on the $54 million project to reconstruct the US 41/WIS 21 interchange in Oshkosh. That project isn’t expected to be completed until November 2012.
3 Pro business state legislation
Less than 24 hours after being sworn in as Wisconsin’s chief executive, Gov. Scott Walker presented drafts of several legislative bills aimed at jumpstarting the state’s economy. The bills included: tort reform legislation; a tax credit for contributions into health savings accounts; an exemption for businesses from income and franchise taxes for two years for firms that have done business in Wisconsin for 10 years or longer; a tax deduction to businesses for each job they create in the state; and a $25 million increase in funding for economic development tax credits. Each measure passed through the legislature before the end of the month.
In early February, Walker signed a measure replacing the existing Department of Commerce and most of its economic development assistance functions with the newly established Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
In early May, both houses of the legislature approved a bill increasing the number of enterprise zones in the state from 12 to 20, which expands the opportunity for businesses to become eligible for a range of tax incentives for creating jobs.
Lastly, in November, Gov. Walker signed legislation allowing municipalities to work together to create tax incremental financing districts across municipal and town jurisdictions. The measure has been at the forefront of regional economic development efforts as a tool to help regions better pitch local resources to larger companies to move to Wisconsin.
4 Schreiber Foods expansion
On June 7, significant Green Bay employer Schreiber Foods announced plans to build a new $50 million corporate headquarters and technology center on the site of the former J. C. Penney Co. store in the closed Port Plaza Mall and the Days Inn building. The anchor of downtown Green Bay had sat vacant for more than a half decade since its closure.
As part of the development deal, City of Green Bay officials agreed to provide $14.5 million in assistance to acquire adjacent properties, pay off existing debt on the mall property, and demolish the mall structure.
Construction of the 130,000-sq. ft. headquarters and separate 90,000-sq. ft. technology center building is expected to begin in early 2012 and be complete in 2014 for Schreiber Foods to consolidate positions from its other facilities and move an estimated 550 staff members into the new location.
5 State Senate recalls
As a reaction to the Chaos at the Capitol highlighted at the top of our list, recall papers were taken out in early March on nine state senators, including Sen. Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac), Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) from northeast Wisconsin. All nine petitions received sufficient voter signatures to force summer recall elections.
At the filing deadline to register for candidacy in mid-June, all of the races included a “spoiler” candidate, forcing a July primary election in each race except for the 30th Senate District, where the state Government Accountability Board determined Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) did not secure enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot in the recall race against Sen. Hansen.
All of the sitting senators from northeast Wisconsin retained their seats in the Aug. 9 recall elections with the exception of Sen. Hopper in the 18th Senate District, who was defeated by Democratic challenger Jessica King with 51 percent of the vote.
6 Fox Cities exhibit center
The ongoing endeavor to bring a modern, expanded convention center to the Fox Cities continued its progress in 2011, following a story that ranked No. 3 on our 2010 list.
In mid-January, the Outagamie County Property/Airport committee indicated it would not likely sell the downtown Appleton parking lot it owns for the development of a proposed $20 million convention center, but changed course later in June when the full county board of supervisors voted to consider selling property near the downtown Appleton Justice Center for the site of the project.
As currently proposed by Fox Cities Exhibition Center Inc. – a grassroots group of community leaders steering the effort – the nearly 30,000-sq. ft. facility would be attached by skywalk over Lawrence Street to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel. The exhibition center group would purchase the property and construct the convention facility primarily through an anticipated increase in hotel room taxes and a public fundraising campaign.
For its part, the City of Appleton committed $3.4 million in capital improvement funding toward the project when it ratified its 2012 budget in early November.
7 Possible re-use of former NewPage mill
n what’s become a staple of our Top Ten list over the past three years, the former NewPage mill in Kimberly still remains idle and vacant at the end of 2011, but does have a new owner. The paper mill had closed in September 2008, putting 600 people out of work.
This past spring, an unidentified prospective buyer investigated the possibility of converting the facility for a new use, but a feasibility study ultimately determined the plant would not suit the buyer’s needs effectively, and the prospective buyer backed out of negotiations in late April.
In early June, NewPage Corp. sold the mill to Montreal-based American Iron & Metal Co. Inc., which was considering demolition of the building and selling the scraps for recycling, a venture that wouldn’t create any long-term jobs. Community leaders stepped in once again late in the summer and began talks with Forest Resources LLC to possibly purchase the property from its new owners, but they withdrew from the discussions in late October.
This past December, the Outagamie County Board was still determining if it would provide $45,000 toward the cost of a study to analyze alternate uses for the mill in an attempt to more effectively market the property. The City of Kimberly committed $50,000 toward such a study.
8 Lambeau Field expansion
In an effort to compete with the larger markets of the National Football League, officials in the front office for the Green Bay Packers unveiled plans in late August to expand Lambeau Field by 6,600 seats – giving it a total capacity of 79,000 and making it the fourth-largest stadium in the NFL.
The $143 million proposal also calls for two new entrances and a rooftop viewing platform in the north end zone. The franchise kicked off a stock sale in December to help finance the expansion costs and netted more than $46 million in the first 48 hours.
The development proposal comes on the heels of a Super Bowl championship as well as the early January announcement from the Green Bay/Brown County Professional Football Stadium District that it was close to paying off the total debt for the $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field in 2003, nearly 20 years ahead of the projected debt retirement date in 2031. The early debt retirement is expected to save taxpayers more than $100 million in interest.
9 Job Growth
Stories of employers from the region adding large numbers of new jobs always seems to find a place near the top of our list each year, but the instances of large-scale expansions in 2011 were admittedly few and far between in 2011. But there were a few.
In early January, West Business Services in Appleton held a job fair to fill 160 sales and account management positions, with jobs expected to provide salaries from $25,000 to $40,000. In late March, West again announced it would add 80 more fulltime jobs at its two Appleton locations, bringing its total employment in Appleton at close to 1,000.
In early April, Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac announced it would hire about 150 manufacturing and distribution employees, many of which were a result of transferring production work from the company’s stern drive plant in Oklahoma. In late October, Humana said it would add nearly 95 jobs to its Green Bay-area locations, primarily in its service operations and technology teams.
10 Wind turbine fight in Brown County
n mid-March, the Town of Glenmore Board of Supervisors in southeast Brown County approved a development plan for Cenergy to build eight wind turbines, despite strong opposition from more than 100 residents.
Less than a week later, Chicago-based Invenergy LLC retracted its plans to develop a separate 100-turbine wind farm across southern Brown County, indicating Wisconsin’s regulatory environment is too unstable. The proposal had been on hold as Invenergy awaited new guidelines from the state Public Service Commission, which was prompted by a proposal from Gov. Walker to curtail wind energy development in Wisconsin.
Later in the year, Sen. Frank Lasee (R-Ledgeview), who represents much of southern and eastern Brown County, called for a statewide moratorium on wind farm development until a comprehensive health study can be conducted.
Oneida Seven Generations energy project
Despite issues developing its proposed waste-to-energy electricity plant in the Village of Ashwaubenon in 2010, Oneida Seven Generations Corp. did successfully come to an arrangement with the City of Green Bay and began construction of a 70,000-sq. ft. pyrolytic gasification electricity generation plant in early 2011. The alternative energy facility will incinerate garbage at extreme temperatures and convert the energy into electricity.
Agnesian/Ripon hospital merger
In late May, Ripon Medical Center merged with Fond du Lac-based Agnesian HealthCare. Agnesian committed to plan for a replacement hospital in Ripon, enhance service lines, and implement an electronic medical record at RMC.
Oshkosh City Center hotel fallout
Redevelopment dreams for the seven-story City Center Hotel in downtown Oshkosh fizzled in early November when the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Foundation and WHG Companies of Oshkosh backed away from a proposal to purchase the 179-room hotel on the banks of the Fox River and invest nearly $8 million in its renovation and revitalization. The buyers ultimately learned the costs involved with the project far exceeded their expectations.
Fox Valley Metro Police merger
In March, the Village of Combined Locks approved merging its police department with the Fox Valley Metro Police Department serving the villages of Kimberly and Little Chute. Combined Locks officials indicated they expect to save more than $500,000 during the next 10 years with the merger, in addition to receiving a higher level of police service.
City of Appleton employee benefits
As part of its 2012 budget discussions, the City of Appleton Common Council agreed to extend health care insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners of non-union employees, a measure estimated to cost the city an additional $100,000 annually. The benefit extension was implemented as a measure of fairness to all employees and to help attract and retain the best quality employees to the city.
Winnebago Co. – Health dept. merger
Discussions that began in 2010 about the possibility of combining health departments from the cities of Oshkosh and Neenah with Winnebago County continued to move forward in 2011. A study released in September to determine potential efficiencies indicated operational costs could be trimmed by nearly 20 percent, or about $350,000 a year, through such a merger. Though particular details are still being discussed, the consolidation could be complete early in 2012.
Green Bay convention center expansion
The Greater Green Bay Lodging Association recommended a 2 point increase in the hotel room tax from 8 to 10 percent in August to help generate additional funds for the Greater Green Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to market tourism. City of Green Bay officials asked to have half of the potential room tax rate increase go toward a proposed $18 million expansion of the KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay.