Four Big Ideas That Changed the Fox Cities
By Sean P. Johnson
Sometimes we take our greatest assets for granted.
“I just drive it. I don’t think about it,” says John Bubolz, chairman of the citizens committee that lobbied the state to fund and build the Tri-County Expressway, now known as Wisconsin Trunk Highway 441.
Every day, Fox Cities’ residents benefit from similar community assets without giving them a second thought. Assets like Highway 441, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, the Fox River Mall and Outagamie County Regional Airport have changed the way we work and play.
They are big ideas that changed the Fox Cities.
Tri County Expressway/441
If Highway 441 didn’t directly spur the growth many Fox Cities communities experienced the past three decades, then it was the artery that made that growth easier.
The few minutes it takes to zip from community to community along the highway is hardly enough time to realize that many people never thought the roadway would amount to more than a dream. Yet without it, much of the residential and commercial growth in the eastern areas of the Fox Cities may not have happened.
“It provided the access we needed,” says Eric Fowle, executive director of the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. “There was a lot of land near that corridor that was just sitting there. It created the access and opportunity for development.”
It was 20 years ago, 1993, what is now known as Highway 441 was completed and opened from end to end. It’s been more than 30 years since some of the first elements such as the Roland Kampo bridge opened and began to better connect the Fox Cities.
The highway now handles as many as 70,000 vehicles a day during peak traffic times and is considered an essential element of northeast Wisconsin’s highway infrastructure. Not bad for a road the state did not want to build.
“I had one meeting where I was told we should just give the land back to the farmers,” said Michael Marsden, the former Outagamie County Highway Commissioner who worked more than 20 years on the project. “We just kept plugging away at it.”
Highway 441 can be traced back to a big idea from the early 1960s, when a transportation plan for the region first marked out the “Tri-County Expressway,” and local communities preserved the roadway corridor by including it in the official street maps.
From there, things moved slowly, though steadily, as communities along the route acquired right-of-way and commissioned additional planning studies. In 1975, the Roland Kampo Bridge opened, and by 1979 a citizens group formed to coordinate lobbying efforts to get the state to participate in the project.
“It took longer to get it funded than it did to actually build it,” recalls Bubolz.
Supporters argued the roadway would save time, money and lives by improving traffic flow through the Fox Cities and taking traffic off of an already crowded Highway 41. Armed with the slogan “If you were driving on the Tri-County Expressway, you’d be there by now.” the group eventually got local buy-in, then brought the state onboard.
In 1984, Wisconsin designated the Tri-County as a major highway funding project, and in 1985 placed it on the state trunk system as Highway 441. By 1986 the project has been added to the state’s six-year plan for funding and first construction work began in 1988.
The highway was completed in 1993. The state is now planning upgrades to many sections to handle the volume of traffic using the highway on a daily basis.
“There is no doubt it made the Fox Cities the dynamic community it is today,” Bubolz said. “It’s been a boon to our community.”
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center
Oscar Boldt clearly remembers the phone call he took on a spring day in 1999.
The question posed was a theoretical one, but loaded: can you build a performing arts center in downtown Appleton by 2002? He recalls saying it was technically possible, but questioning whether enough money could be raised in time to pay the costs.
Three years and nearly $50 million in contributions later, including the $8 million gift from Aid Associate for Lutherans, now Thrivent, that sparked the campaign, the curtains of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center raised for the inaugural performance, a concert by Tony Bennett.
That event marked so much more than the completion of an ambitious project, it also ushered in a new era of downtown revitalization, with the PAC as a crown jewel attraction bringing people and disposable income into the Fox Cities.
“It was really a concerted effort by a lot of people that created a cultural mecca that makes people want to come to downtown Appleton,” Boldt says. “It’s made the downtown an interesting place to go.”
Now in its 11th year, the PAC continues to play a central role in a resurgent downtown that includes an eclectic mix of retail, office space, restaurants, a new hotel and additional cultural attractions such as the Appleton Building for the Arts and Houdini Square.
Recent economic studies attribute $17.8 million in annual economic activity to the PAC, which helps to fuel the ongoing transformation of downtown Appleton.
“It really anchors the district,” says Jennifer Stephany, the executive director for Appleton
Downtown Inc. “It’s been the catalyst for a series of improvements.”
In addition to the dollars, the PAC has helped change the demographics of who plays and lives in the downtown area. More than 44 percent of the patrons the venue attracts come from outside the Fox Cities Area. Downtown now attracts more than revelers in their early 20s. Baby boomers have returned, some with an eye on downtown living, Stephany says.
Downtown supporters say the PAC may prove to be the spark that ignited the downtown’s evolution toward what is being called the creative economy, which attracts not only artisans and galleries, but creative professions such as architects, web designers, marketing and public relations professionals and programmers.
It’s also helped renew a sense of place that makes events such as Mile of Music possible.
“I love what’s happened with our downtown,” says Maria Van Laanen, executive vice president of the Fox Cities PAC. “I think the PAC has become an icon for investment and the value people here place on arts and community.”
Outagamie County Regional Airport
If the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center is the area’s cultural and creative window to the world, then Outagamie County Regional Airport is the door through which those people and ideas pass.
While less a project and more a long term investment, the airport has played an important role in supporting the region’s economy as both a hub of activity for tenants as well as supporting easy access for those doing business with and for businesses here.
“It’s been a central generator of economic activity on its own, but if we didn’t have it, I’m not sure that some of the companies here now would have their headquarters here or be involved at the same level,” says Karen Harkness, economic development director for the city of Appleton.
It could have turned out much differently. When Outagamie County was developing plans for a new airport in the early 1960s, it approached Winnebago County about developing a shared facility. Winnebago County nixed the idea, having invested heavily in the Oshkosh Regional Airport.
In 1965, Outagamie County sited the airport in Greenville, and it has been growing steadily since, becoming one of the state’s busiest airports in terms of combined passengers and commercial activities. It trails only the Milwaukee and Madison airports in terms of cargo handled, according to the State of Wisconsin Aviation Activity Reports for 2012, and is fourth in the state for passenger traffic behind those two airports and Green Bay.
In addition to passengers and cargo, the airport has become a prime area for industrial and commercial development, best represented by the growing Gulfstream operation located there, which in the past year has added nearly 100 new jobs. The airport and Fox Valley Technical College recently announced the addition of a $30 million safety training center for the airport grounds.
A recent economic impact report by the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics determined the airport’s direct economic impact on Outagamie County is nearly $300 million annually. The state is currently updating those figures for 2013.
The airport is a vital organ in the economic health of the region, especially for industries that need easy access both into the region or connecting to other parts of the country, says Appleton Mayor Timothy Hannah. Having an airport close has helped them succeed and kept them from relocating to other regions.
The airport has also been a cradle of economic development he says, noting that both Midwest Express and Wisconsin Air started at the airport.
Now, it’s the growth of Gulfstream and the partnership with FVTC for a safety training center.
“Gulfstream may not be well- known, but they employ a huge workforce for the region,” Hannah says. “People from all over the world come here to pick up their airplanes.”
Fox River Mall
Many expected the Fox River Mall would kill downtown Appleton.
When developers first announced their plans to build a new indoor shopping mall in the Appleton area, many community leaders lobbied for a downtown location for fear the mall would pull shoppers out of the stores there and leave the downtown barren.
Today, nearly 30 years later, both are thriving, no doubt at least in part because of the 16 million shopper visits Fox River Mall attracts to the Appleton area each year.
“It’s given us a brand and made us a destination for shoppers,” says Pam Seidl, executive irector of the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In the end, both have flourished. It’s created an opportunity for the complimentary and specialty retail we find downtown.”
The CVB has long capitalized on the mall’s attraction, billing the Appleton area as “Wisconsin’s Shopping Destination.” It has the ability to attract shoppers from more than 150 miles away who are willing to stay overnight.
That attraction has helped power the development of thousands of feet of retail space in Grand Chute and the surrounding area, as well helped draw folks to the area’s other entertainment and cultural attractions.
“The mall has become a great regional draw that has contributed to the great regional growth we have seen in this area,” says John Burgland, senior general manager.
Burgland agreed the mall draws from an exceptionally large area, up to 200 miles away in some cases, which has made it a truly “super regional” attraction.
“But people don’t just come for the mall,” Burgland says. “While they are here, there are plenty of great things for them to do.”