Top Ten of 2015

The news and developments from 2015 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.

Construction mirrors surge in economy

If you regularly read B2B’s signature Build Up department in every edition and review our monthly listing of issued building permits, you probably recognized commercial and industrial construction activity surged in northeast Wisconsin throughout 2015.

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 $500 million in building permits for commercial, industrial and institutional projects were issued across our readership area alone during 2015. It’s a sign that pent-up demand to expand facilities just couldn’t wait any longer, and that businesses are eager to spend on new improvements while interest rates remain at historically-low levels.

At one time this past summer, more than 70 construction projects graced the pages of B2B’s Build Up pages – an all-time record high in our 14-year history – representing sizable new construction or additions for facilities in Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, the Fox Cities and the Greater Green Bay Area. In total, more than 175 building projects were featured on our Build Up pages throughout 2015. Here’s an abbreviated list of some of the more notable projects:

  • ThedaCare began construction on a $37 million, 82,000-sq. ft. regional cancer treatment facility.
  • Grande Cheese nearly completed its $35 million, 87,000-sq. ft. new corporate headquarters complex.
  • Fox Valley Hematology & Oncology completed its $22 million, 60,000-sq. ft. facility on Appleton’s north side.
  • Georgia-Pacific provided more than $19 million in improvements to its Broadway mill in Green Bay, replacing the clarifiers in its water treatment plant.
  • Menasha Packaging began work on a $23 million corporate headquarters facility in Neenah to replace its former main offices.
  • Many of the same developers associated with the Neenah Center complex began work across the Fox River and all the way across Doty Island on the $13 million One Menasha Center, an 8-story, 100,000-sq. ft. multi-tenant office complex which will house new corporate headquarters for Faith Technologies.
  • Werner Electric began construction on its $13 million, 260,000-sq. ft. corporate offices and distribution center.
  • 4imprint wrapped up a 100,000-sq. ft. expansion of its distribution center in Oshkosh.

Jobs to Fill = Low unemployment

Unemployment in northeast Wisconsin scaled back down to pre-recession levels and nearly reached the sub-3 percent environment of 15 years ago. The region’s average unemployment rate ended 2015 at roughly 3.1 percent, while employment across the entire New North reached almost 600,000 workers – about 2 percent shy of peak pre-recession employment levels as reported at last month’s New North Summit. Nationwide, nearly $2.6 million jobs were created in 2015, down slightly from the $2.95 million new jobs created during 2014.

It’s been good news for job seekers. But the other side of the coin isn’t quite as celebratory for employers struggling to fill open positions. Several employers have been hiring consistently throughout 2015, and offering more innovative incentives to attract the best candidates. Job fairs became a common occurrence across northeast Wisconsin during the past year. As a result, top-notch employers are discovering that investing in employee skills development can help stem the tide of a workforce shortage, allowing fewer employees to have greater productivity.

Oshkosh Corp. riding high again

Oshkosh Defense learned in late August that it was awarded a $6.7 billion Joint Light Tactical Vehicle contract from the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command. The highly-sought and heavily-contested contract orders nearly 17,000 tactical military vehicles over an eight-year span, filling the production pipeline for the Fortune 400 manufacturer and the hundreds of vendors in its supply chain across northeast Wisconsin.

The contract includes provisions to be extended to as long as 2040, with the potential to manufacturer and service nearly 55,500 heavy-duty military vehicles with a cumulative value estimated at $30 billion.

The award had been contested by defense giant Lockheed Martin, another manufacturer vying for the contract, but that challenge was ultimately dismissed by Pentagon officials in mid-December.

Production is expected to begin early this year, and will likely create thousands of new jobs across northeast Wisconsin in the next few years, both for Oshkosh Corp. as well as for vendors in its supply chain.

Packers Titletown District unveiled

In late August, the Green Bay Packers organization announced plans to invest $65 million in developing a 34-acre Titletown District immediately west of Lambeau Field, which promises to expand the year-round tourism appeal to the sacred grounds of the Frozen Tundra.

The proposed development includes a 10-acre public plaza; Lodge Kohler, a four-diamond hotel built and managed by Kohler Company; a 30,000- sq. ft. Bellin Health Sports Medicine Clinic; and a 20,000- sq. ft. Hinterland Restaurant and Brewery. While final designs were not yet complete at the end of the year, the elaborate public plaza could include a winter ice skating rink, a small amphitheater, a full-sized football field and public art, among other showpieces. The total investment between the Packers and its partners is expected to be in the range of $120 to $130 million.

While the announced development will stand on a footprint of about 18 acres, another remaining 16 acres will be available for future development of commercial, retail and residential entities. The Packers hoped to complete all necessary permitting by the end of the year and begin construction in January, with plans to complete the initial phase in time for the 2017 season.

Fox Cities Expo Center forges ahead

A topic that’s perennially made B2B’s Top 10 list for the past few years, efforts to develop a new Fox Cities Exhibition Center took some tangible steps forward in 2015 as the pieces of the financing puzzle began to come together to construct the nearly $28 million project.

After initially balking at the offer to purchase Outagamie County-owned land adjacent to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton, the city’s common council approved an already-budgeted measure to purchase the parking lot from the county for $2 million this past March.

Another critical component of the proposed expo center materialized in May when Florida-based Inner Circle Investments agreed to purchase the previously-troubled Paper Valley Hotel, promising significant investments to modernize the property as well as intentions to enter into a management agreement for the proposed 62,000-sq. ft. convention center.

Because construction bonds would largely be financed through additional revenue generated by increasing room taxes across the Fox Cities, Appleton became the first of ten communities to hike its room tax rate from 6 to 10 percent in late October, setting the stage for its neighboring cities, towns and villages to do the same during November. With final approval for an increased room tax from all ten municipalities by late November, the City of Appleton acquired the property for the facility from the county.

Construction on the project – which includes a 35,000-sq. ft. addition to the existing convention space at the Paper Valley Hotel – is expected to begin this summer.

Fox Locks fully open after three decades

Following completion of a 10-year, $14.5 million lock restoration project, the Fox River Navigational Authority officially opened the final renovated lock on the 16-lock system between Menasha and Kaukauna in late August.

Marine traffic still won’t be able to navigate the full 37-mile stretch until 2017, while waterway officials continue to repair three bridges along the route. Once reopened next year, boaters will be able to navigate from Lake Winnebago south to Brown County for the first time since the locks closed in 1987. It’s expected to attract substantial tourism revenue to the Fox Valley from boaters and history enthusiasts interested in exploring the one-time artery of the region’s paper industry.

The lock at Rapide Croche near Wrightstown will remain closed to prevent aquatic invasive species from migrating upstream from the Great Lakes, though the authority is working to place a boat lift at that lock.

Highway funding taken away, then partially restored

In late September, State Department of Transportation officials announced significant delays in five major highway construction projects across the state – including three in northeast Wisconsin – due to lack of funding in the current, recently passed two-year state budget for 2015-17. DOT officials had indicated work on the projects won’t stop altogether, but will slow down, potentially driving project costs higher.

Among the delayed projects were the Highway 10/441 expansion and improvement in northern Winnebago County, the State Road 15 expansion project near Greenville and Hortonville, and the State Road 23 expansion in eastern Fond du Lac County. The $482 million project to improve Highways 10/441 between Interstate 41 and Oneida Street in Menasha began in 2014 and was anticipated to be complete by 2019, but the announced delay would push completion back to 2021. Similarly, completion of the $148 million reconstruction of WIS 15 from Greenville to New London was delayed until at least 2021, and the $151 million expansion of WIS 23 to four lanes between Fond du Lac and Plymouth scheduled to begin this spring had been delayed as a result of a lawsuit brought by an environmental group.

Following outcry from northeast Wisconsin business and local government leaders during October, state legislators scrambled to restore additional funding to keep these projects on track, passing an emergency measure in November to borrow an additional $350 million while delaying other scheduled projects on less heavily traveled highways across the state.

Superstore Wars

Retail behemoths Meijer, Costco and Sam’s Club jockeyed for position across the Fox Cities, Greater Green Bay Area and Oshkosh throughout 2015, buying property, building a new store, and announcing other new stores down the road.

With one northeast Wisconsin store already located in Bellevue on Green Bay’s east side, town of Grand Chute officials approved development plans for Costco to construct a 150,000-sq. ft. store and fuel station on 16 acres of land off Wisconsin Avenue near McCarthy Road to the west of Fox River Mall. Construction began in April, with the new store opening in October.

Meanwhile, Michigan-based competitor Meijer – which just opened its first Wisconsin stores this past summer in the Milwaukee area – announced plans for a 193,000-sq. ft. supercenter near the southeast quadrant of the Interstate 41/WIS 29 interchange west of Green Bay. The estimated $12 to $14 million project was approved by the Village of Howard Board of Supervisors in March. Construction is expected to begin later this year, with the new store opening in 2017 and employing an estimated 200 to 250 people. About three months later, Meijer officials confirmed negotiations to purchase property near the County Road GV and WIS 172 interchange in Bellevue, suggesting construction plans for a second Green Bay area store on the metro region’s east side.

In August, officials from Meijer said they plan to purchase property at State Road 47 and Evergreen Dr. in the town of Grand Chute for future development of a 190,000-sq. ft. store. Construction of the new store north of Appleton would begin in 2017, with the store opening in 2018 at the earliest.

In Oshkosh, Sam’s Club officials announced in June it would indefinitely shelve plans to construct a 136,000-sq. ft. store near Interstate 41 after acquiring the property in 2014 and receiving development approval from the city’s common council earlier in 2015.

Regions’s first medical college open in De Pere

Medical College of Wisconsin opened its Green Bay area campus this past summer on the campus of St. Norbert College in De Pere, where a 150,000-sq. ft. educational and research facility was recently constructed for the school.

The new campus – along with another which opened in the Wausau area this past summer as well – is intended to address a shortage of physicians in Wisconsin in areas of the state beyond Milwaukee and Madison, where the state’s only two previous medical schools were located.

Medical College officials in Green Bay reported about 2,400 applications had been received for 26 spots in its inaugural class of physician trainees.

Brown County sales tax ends

In early March, the Green Bay/Brown County Professional Football Stadium District Board of Trustees requested the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to retire the Brown County half-percent sales tax, which was instituted in 2001 as a result of a public referendum to help finance the $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field completed in 2003.

Those bonds were paid off in 2011. In the four years since, the district had collected revenues in excess of $90 million which will be used to finance maintenance responsibilities at Lambeau Field through the end of the Green Bay Packers current lease in 2031.

With the benediction of the state Department of Revenue, the special Brown County sales tax ended on Sept. 30, returning the sales tax rate to 5 percent as it had been 15 years earlier. Following the last of the special sales tax collections this past fall, stadium district officials estimated a $17.4 million surplus, which will be redistributed to Brown County towns, villages and cities on a per-capita basis for property tax relief, debt reduction or economic development.

2015 Honorable Mention

Fox Crossing incorporation effort

The effort to incorporate a substantial portion of the Town of Menasha into the proposed Village of Fox Crossing continued to gain steam during 2015 after town residents filed a petition with the Wisconsin Department of Administration in January. Town officials hoped to bring the matter up for public referendum in this coming Feb. 16 primary election, but a delayed decision from the state’s Incorporation Review Board in mid-December may push any vote from residents back as late as April 2016.

NWTC referendum

In April, voters in the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College district approved a $66.5 million building referendum with 59 percent of nearly 65,000 votes cast. Improvements began this past summer to provide $53.5 million in facility and equipment enhancements at the Green Bay campus for its information technology, manufacturing, digital arts, business, public safety and construction programs. About $10 million is earmarked for the Marinette campus and an additional $3 million for the Sturgeon Bay campus, both to expand manufacturing and health field programs.

Interstate 41 finally official

The Federal Highway Administration approved Interstate designation for U.S. Highway 41 from Milwaukee to Green Bay, clearing the final hurdle in a process that began nearly 10 years ago. About 3,200 new signs identifying Interstate 41 were erected this past summer. Local government, economic development and tourism officials had lobbied for the Interstate designation during the past decade with hopes it would attract greater visibility to communities along the highway corridor.

Larsen Green takes shape

In late May, City of Green Bay officials finalized development plans with Donald Driver Lane Holdings LLC – a partnership composed of ownership between Smet Construction Services and Titletown Brewing Co. – to acquire and redevelop the remainder of the Larsen Green property on North Broadway. The nearly $30 million development proposal included plans for a hotel, retail space, office space and upper-level residential. The same development group renovated another portion of the former vegetable cannery into Titletown Brewing Company’s new brewery and tap room, a restaurant and some multi-tenant commercial office space during 2014.

Big changes for Appvion

In August, Appleton-based Appvion Inc. sold its Encapsys microencapsulation division for $208 million to a Baltimore-based private investment firm, which planned to keep the division’s offices, lab space and nearly 90 employees in Appleton. Formerly know as Appleton Papers, Appvion created its Encapsys division in 2006 to discover, develop and manufacture microencapsulation solutions for use in the building and construction, paper, bedding, and personal and household care industries. That same day, Appvion CEO Mark Richards announced his retirement at the end of 2015, prompting the company’s board of directors to appoint Kevin Gilligan, president of Appvion’s paper division, as its next chief executive.

Marian fills top leadership vacancy

In late October, Marian University in Fond du Lac named Andrew P. Manion as its 16th president, succeeding Robert A. Fale, who has been serving as interim president for nearly three years since the May 2013 departure of former President Steven DiSalvo. Manion – who earned his bachelor of arts degree in psychology from St. Norbert College in De Pere – has spent the past 17 years at Aurora University in Illinois, currently serving as its executive vice president.