What a difference 10 years makes. A decade ago, an empty shopping mall stood at the center of downtown Green Bay, surrounded by vacant storefronts and half-empty buildings. Today, two major local companies call downtown home, there’s a recently expanded convention center and redevelopment projects at nearly every turn.
The key has been support from city leaders, who invested in infrastructure projects to make the area more inviting, and businesses that were willing to call the downtown home, said Harry Maier, a long-time member of the Green Bay Redevelopment Authority. The big turning point was when the city razed the empty Washington Commons mall in 2012. Later that year, Schreiber Foods announced plans to build a new $85 million headquarters and technology center on the former mall’s footprint.
“When Schreiber Foods made the commitment to new headquarters downtown, that changed everything. That was a huge investment,” Meier said of the cheese manufacturer’s new facility, which opened in 2014. “Then Associated Bank followed suit by leaving Ashwaubenon and relocating its headquarters there. Those two events focused a lot of interest on the downtown and brought other businesses.”
The newly-expanded KI Convention Center is also bringing more attention and people downtown, said Kevin Vonck, Green Bay’s economic development director. Just last year, a $23 million expansion added 34,233 square feet to the convention center, for a new total of 80,000 square feet.
“We were losing out on some conventions because they outgrew our space. To stay competitive, we needed more room,” Vonck said. “We’ve already gained back some events we lost because of size concerns.”
The 2012 construction of the CityDeck, a quarter-mile boardwalk along the Fox River with spaces for entertainment and leisure activities, encouraged more people to come downtown, Maier said.
“There’s been so much activity downtown – more than $200 million in new investments. Businesses are knocking on our door to come to downtown Green Bay,” he said. “It’s all been possible because of the city, developers and businesses all working together. Public-private partnerships are key.”
One example is the former Larsen Green cannery site owned by the city. Smet Construction and Titletown Brewing Co. formed a joint venture to purchase 6 acres and have already completed several commercial projects there, including a new headquarters for Smet and the Greater Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, offices, a new restaurant—The Cannery Public Market—and Titletown’s new Tap Room and brewery. The city plans to sell the remaining 16 acres of the site to the group by the end of 2016.
Hotels, retailers, office tenants and residential developers have shown interest in the remaining acres, said Jim Kratowicz, Titletown’s chief operating officer.
“Interest in the site continues to be robust,” he said. “We’re looking forward to developing this area and maintaining the momentum.”
Vonck said it’s exciting to see once-empty buildings and spaces finding new life.
“Green Bay has a long industrial history and the community is rediscovering these old buildings and taking advantage of their good bones and renovating them,” he said. “If businesses want to grow, we work with them to do what we can to make it happen.”