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Vision Quest

The new Oshkosh Arena will be home to the Milwaukee Bucks development league team, but developers and city leaders expect it will also help crystalize the vision for its South Shore redevelopment

Story by Rick Berg

April 2017

From where Jason White sits, Oshkosh’s Sawdust District is still “a vision, not a plan,” but the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision in February to locate its Development League basketball team in Oshkosh certainly helps focus that vision and likely moves the Sawdust District concept closer to becoming an actual plan.

The Sawdust District, as proposed, would encompass redevelopment of several key central city sites south of the Fox River in Oshkosh, including Pioneer Island and the former Buckstaff Company property. Construction is currently taking place on the Buckstaff site for the new 3,500-seat, $17 million privately financed Oshkosh Arena that will host the Buck’s development team in the NBA Gatorade League. The arena is expected to be completed and ready for occupancy in the late fall of this year. 

White, who is CEO of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp., said there are several key stakeholders within the district’s proposed boundaries who have yet to sign on for additional development, and the plan has not been adopted by the City of Oshkosh Plan Commission or the Common Council. Nonetheless, he said, the Sawdust District concept fits squarely within the Imagine Oshkosh Master Plan for redevelopment.

The Sawdust District would be another piece of the puzzle in Oshkosh’s Central City and South Shore redevelopment areas, along with Marion Road, the Riverwalk, Pioneer Road and the city’s lone downtown hotel. As envisioned, the Sawdust District would include not only the new arena, but also a mixed-use environment of office, retail and hotel space, as well as residential units and entertainment amenities – not unlike the Packers’ Titletown District in Green Bay or the Bucks’ proposed Sports and Entertainment District near its new arena in downtown Milwaukee.

Greg Pierce, president of Oshkosh-based Windward Wealth Strategies and president of Fox Valley Pro Basketball, was the driving force behind the Oshkosh bid for the Bucks’ development league franchise. Pierce’s Fox Valley Pro Basketball will own and operate the arena and is also expected to spearhead much of the Sawdust District development.

He welcomes the comparison with Green Bay’s Titletown District and Milwaukee’s proposed entertainment district.

“I think that’s right on target,” Pierce said. “That’s a good comparison. To build facilities like this you have to have year-round functions for more than just sports. That is happening in major sports but also in minor league sports as well. To make this project work and be profitable, it needs to be part of the community on a year-round basis.”

While the Bucks minor league team will be the primary tenant of the arena, Pierce and others said the facility will also see other uses, including youth sports tournaments, concerts and other special events.

More than a ripple effect

Allen Davis, community development director for the City of Oshkosh, said the arena project would have a positive impact if only because of the blight it removed from the city.

“Just tearing down the Buckstaff property was going to be a step forward,” Davis said, “so it was most fortuitous that we were able to redevelop that blighted property so quickly. It went from being such a negative to a huge positive for that neighborhood.

“There will be more than a ripple effect,” Davis added. “There will be waves of economic impact. Certainly there is going to be the direct economic impact of the investment they are making during construction and then during operation of the facility. But over the course of time we would also expect there to be a positive impact on the business and residential property values in that area.”

Besides helping drive redevelopment of a key part of Oshkosh’s central city, the new Bucks development league franchise is likely to have major economic ripple effects throughout community and region.

White calls it “a unique impact,” in that like any project there is the direct impact of construction and operation of the facility. “Between the Bucks staff and the staff needed to operate the arena, there will be more than a handful of jobs created,” White said.

There will also be the tourism dollars generated by event attendees from outside the area.

The long-term impact is likely to be created by boosting the quality of life in Oshkosh and the surrounding area, White said.

“We’ve had very good job growth here and having a facility like this will hopefully draw more workers to this area so we can continue the growth,” White said.

That also falls in line with Pierce’s vision for the project, which focused on creating tangible economic impact for his investment group, as well as for the community.

“This is not a basketball deal,” said Pierce. “The basketball team is a conduit to development. This is a development deal that we were able to spearhead because of a basketball opportunity. This is also different from a lot of other stadium and arena projects in that this one is financed entirely privately. So we look at economic development from a private equity standpoint. Is this profitable and will this produce a return for investors? That is quite different from looking at how many jobs will be created and so forth. That’s all going to happen but that’s not the driver for the project.”

Choosing the site

The pieces came together for everyone in, as Davis described it, a “most fortuitous” way.

The City of Oshkosh was still trying to decide what to do with the abandoned and environmentally tainted Buckstaff property. The Milwaukee Bucks – lagging behind most of their NBA brethren in having a Development League team – was feeling pressure to have a team available to them within a reasonable distance of Milwaukee. Pierce, besides wanting Oshkosh to continue to grow, is always, in his role as president of Windward Wealth Strategies, on the lookout for profitable investment opportunities.

“I’ve been in the investment business for more than 25 years,” Pierce said, “and one thing we are always trying to do is to look for inefficiencies in the marketplace and for opportunities to solve problems. In this scenario, we had the Bucks looking to have a Development League team and wanting to get it done sooner than later – for the 2017-2018 season in fact. We also knew there was an appetite for redevelopment in Oshkosh. So, we began 18 months ago to put together a plan that would provide an opportunity to do it profitably and also within the Bucks’ time horizon, which was very short.”

White said the process went uncharacteristically fast for one of this magnitude, largely propelled by the Bucks’ timeline.

“It might not have seemed to move quickly to the public, because it was a pretty public process for a long time with a lot of chatter, but this was a pretty tight timeline,” White said.

The process began with Pierce and his group meeting with White and others to pinpoint potential sites for an arena – a must-have for the Bucks to consider a proposal. The group considered a package of sites along Interstate 41, as well as a few in downtown Oshkosh.

Through process of elimination, most of the sites were rejected for one reason or another, including topographical issues. It also became clear that a downtown site would be most attractive to the Bucks and an encouragement for the Bucks to choose Oshkosh over other communities.

“It became evident that the Bucks had a strong desire to be downtown, surrounded by an entertainment district,” White said. “So we saw that if we honed in on downtown we stood a better chance. Buckstaff was kind of an afterthought because of all the issues surrounding it, but at the end of the day that seemed, ironically, to be the best location and also the most feasible in terms of the timeline.”

That decision appears to have carried the day. In February, when Bucks officials announced that Oshkosh would indeed be home to its development league franchise, the team noted “similar to the arena development currently under construction in Milwaukee, the Oshkosh arena project will serve as a catalyst for additional economic development in the surrounding area.”

A Bucks spokesperson agreed that “it is definitely a fair representation” to say that the Bucks were intrigued by the Oshkosh plan to create an entertainment and mixed-use district.

Completing the downtown vision

Steve Brandes, who was named in early March as president of the Bucks development league team, said downtown Oshkosh “couldn’t be a better fit in terms of the demographics and the location. There’s a strong population base to support the team and it’s close to Milwaukee to make it efficient from a basketball development standpoint.”

Brandes, who spent 10 years as president and general manager of the Idaho Stampede, the Utah Jazz Development League affiliate, said even more than major professional teams, minor league teams benefit by being located within the urban center of their communities.

“What the Bucks ownership is doing in Milwaukee we’re going to be doing in Oshkosh also but on a smaller scale. It’s pretty exciting to see,” Brandes said. “Historically what you see when professional sports teams come to a community is that you bring an enhanced vibrancy to that downtown core. What we’re looking forward to is being able to weave ourselves into the fabric of the community – not just Oshkosh, but the entire Fox Valley.”

Davis believes the arena project presents an uncommon opportunity for a city like Oshkosh, where downtown redevelopment has been a focus for so long.

“I’ve been very impressed with the project that Greg Pierce and Jason White have been able to put together,” Davis said. “They had the vision and the long-term view of what they could create around the arena. The Bucks obviously liked that vision and it also meshes very well with what the community would like to see for downtown Oshkosh.”

White said the Sawdust District concept “has had and still has a lot of moving parts.” He points to the potential for a large multi-tenant office complex or corporate headquarters on the shores of Lake Winnebago, north of where the arena will be located, as well as the multiple opportunities to develop the former Pioneer Resort & Marina property, possibly with a resort and residential units.

“Eventually we will run out of space in that area to develop, but that will be a nice problem to have,” White said.

Pierce believes the arena and overall Sawdust District project will bring more benefits than a lot of people expect.

“You don’t have to be a sports fan or love basketball to love this deal,” Pierce said. “When people see the kind of events and activities we’re going to book into the arena, all the opportunities a facility like this can bring, they are going to see that it will appeal to a much larger cross-section of the community than they might think. It’s much deeper than just a sports facility. People will see it as a much bigger and broader community asset than they did at first.”  

Rick Berg is a writer and editor based in Green Bay.