Appleton Downtown, Inc. has always strived to make the city’s center an inviting place for businesses, residents and tourists, but lately its mission includes an expanded focus on drawing workers to the city.
“It’s about creating that vibrancy for the community and a place where people want to live and raise their families and find a job. It’s all about talent attraction right now,” says ADI Executive Director Jennifer Stephany.
ADI puts on dozens of events throughout the year, and Stephany says the organization does a great job of drawing people together, but efforts also need to be geared toward creating a community where people want to settle.
To accomplish its objectives, ADI is looking at larger communities around the nation, including Nashville and Austin, to see how they’re tackling the issue and how Appleton might replicate some of their tactics. Part of what works for Appleton is live, local music, with the city’s reputation as a home to large-scale events like Mile of Music, outdoor concerts and many live music venues.
Appleton’s niche is offering a small-community feel with big-city amenities, such as the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Stephany says. “We have to find that balance of making it safe and comfortable and pretty, but we also want Broadway and high-level dining and nice boutiques. All of that plays into the kind of community that we’re selling.”
The Fox Cities enjoyed a boost when the Fox Cities PAC opened for its first big show since the pandemic began: a three-week run of Broadway smash “Wicked” in October and November, which delivered a $13.4 million economic impact. It was welcome news for downtown businesses, most of which Stephany says have fared well overall throughout the pandemic, but like all employers, downtown shops and eateries are hurting for workers.
Restaurants, in particular, have had to scale back hours and days of operation. Businesses also are hurting from less foot traffic resulting from many employees still working from home.
“Bringing the office employees back is critical for the restaurants, the delis and the coffee shops,” Stephany says.
Of course, attracting residents to Appleton is only part of the equation. The other big part is having places for people to live. On this front, the city has made a lot of progress, with much still needed.
The Appleton housing market has remained hot throughout the pandemic, with the median home price up $18,000 from a year ago — from $183,000 in 2020 to $201,000 in 2021, says Karen Harkness, director of community and economic development for the City of Appleton. “That speaks to the crazy housing market that we’re seeing right now.”
The demand for downtown housing options remains high. Block 800, which offers 10,000 square feet of commercial space and 20 residential units, opened in spring, and projects in the pipeline will offer additional options.
The city had hoped to see the 320 E. College development completed in the third quarter, but supply chain constraints have led to delays. When it does open, it will offer 39 residential units. The former Park Central site, 318 W. College, also will deliver 39 units along with commercial space on the first floor. It will add three floors to the original building.
Redeveloping the Zuelke Building has “been a challenge,” Harkness says, but a new developer has signed on and the city council approved an amended developer agreement in July. When complete, it will offer 66 residential units and first-floor commercial space. The developers are taking advantage of historic tax credits and TIF funding, and the project is slated to begin this winter.
In mid-August, the council approved Merge Urban Development’s agreement for phase 1 of a project on the Conway Hotel site in the 100 block of East Washington Street. Work will begin this spring. The space will offer 56 units of small apartments, and the first floor will include micro office space and a restaurant. There’s no development agreement yet for phase 2, which would be built on the site of the former blue ramp.
The city also is working to meet the need for low-income and affordable housing. That includes the Crescent Lofts project — 58 of its 69 units are designated as low- to moderate-income units. Northpointe Development, which completed the project, used both historic and WHEDA tax credits.
“We’re so excited about the Crescent Lofts project. They saved the historic Post-Crescent building, and then built new as well,” Harkness says, adding that leasing began this summer, and people will continue to move in on a rotating basis.
The Rise development at the intersection of Harrison, Oneida, Franklin and Appleton would bring 43 units, 36 of which would be reserved for low-income residents. The city will provide up to $612,000 in public assistance to the project, which is contingent upon securing Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority tax credits. The decision on those will come in April.
Plans for the $26.4 million renovation and addition to the Appleton Public Library continue to progress. It will include incorporation of natural light, a children’s garden and rooftop terrace. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago is serving as project architect, and the work is slated to be completed in summer of 2023.
As for another high-profile development, Harkness says the U.S. Venture project is “still moving forward” and has “a lot of moving parts and pieces.”
Appleton Downtown, Inc. is again leading the 9$20 campaign, which encourages residents to choose nine downtown businesses and spend $20 at each to help support the downtown Appleton economy and community. To learn more, visit appletondowntown.org/support-local-920.