Change can be difficult, but for the City of Green Bay, Wisconsin – the economic hub of Northeastern Wisconsin – despite changing market conditions and a new leadership team, it continues to evolve to remain an economic and social center.
For sixteen years, Green Bay was under the leadership of Mayor Jim Schmitt and when he decided to step aside, there was a certain degree of uncertainty about the future direction of the city. Enter Mayor Ben Genrich.
Mayor Genrich was elected in April of 2019. Instead of coming into the role with the idea that the city needed a new trajectory and a strategic overhaul, he recognized the work and progress of his predecessor and has every intention of continuing the good work that has taken place.
In his words, “In terms of the vision I have for the community and economic development, I think it is very much in line with what has been established here in our recent history: continuing to invest in our core community, our downtown that has been revitalized over these past few years, and also making sure that we’re focused on the entirety of the community.”
Growth is taking place across the community and across industries, even in legacy sectors like paper and packaging. A major employer in the city, Green Bay Packaging recently announced plans to invest $600 million in a new paper mill, the first of its kind in the city in three decades. Mayor Genrich also noted, “We have two Georgia Pacific mills, one on the east and one on the west, and I know that, particularly with regard to the west side mill, Georgia Pacific has made a lot of recent investments and is looking at doing more.”
Nature’s Way, a subsidiary of Schwabe North America, is also experiencing growth on the east side of the river. The health food and vitamin manufacturer is in the process of constructing a new food processing facility that will be completed later this year and support the addition of one hundred new jobs.
Manufacturing and industrial growth is great for the city as it spurs additional growth for suppliers in the various supply chains across diverse sectors. In addition to growth in manufacturing, Green Bay is also experiencing growth as a regional healthcare center. Both Prevea and HSHS are engaged in expansion activity at their St. Mary’s location, an 80,000 square foot replacement of the last remaining piece of the original facility. This has spurred growth in both the healthcare and construction sectors in the region and looks to improve the standard of care enjoyed by the region.
Mayor Genrich acknowledged the excitement citizens in Green Bay have for the trajectory of the city and he feels it is his job to keep that momentum going. As such, efforts are being made to assess the needs and priorities of the community and identify ways to address those matters. To this end, the City of Green Bay is in the early stages of a comprehensive planning process to ensure the city remains an economic hub for Northeastern Wisconsin. Being future minded in terms of infrastructure planning is certainly a priority.
As Mayor Genrich explained, “The city is engaged in adopting a five-year capital improvement plan, so that could move through council in the next couple of months,” to ensure it remains fiscally possible to support the growth and development taking place.
He added, “It’s a big step for us to acknowledge what our needs are and develop a plan to address them – not just in terms of surface level infrastructure but also taking into account some of the elements that are underground,” to continue to meet the needs of the community for the coming five to ten years.
Kevin Vonck, Development Director with the City of Green Bay, noted, “The plan we have now is twenty years old. Back when it was done, Airbnb, Amazon, scooters, bikes didn’t exist and if you look at the changes that we’ve had in demographics, housing preferences, retail preferences, we really have to take a look at how we’re going to use land in the future.”
He continued, “We have to do so in a way that provides some guidance but also flexibility that allows us to adapt to changing conditions, so we’re just in the very early stages of updating that document but really excited about the opportunity to engage the community and say, ‘here’s where we’re at and here’s our trajectory.’”
Vonck acknowledged that there have been significant ‘big picture’ changes in both the national and global economies, and he wants to ensure that the city is responding to those changes as best possible. According to Vonck, Green Bay is at “an inflection point where to continue, we have to really double down on what we’re done so far.”
Fortunate to have much of the city designated under opportunity zone status, Green Bay has four targeted districts for growth, three of which are located on the west side of the city that follows the Green Bay down the Fox River to the border of the Villages of Howard and Ashwaubenon, and a fourth along the University Avenue corridor.
One of the major projects taking place on the west side of the city is The Rail Yard. Located in the Broadway District, it is a twenty-two-acre plot that is being geared toward walkable commercial and retail developments, including restaurants, with a focus on technology and innovation. The Rail Yard is home to the renovated Larsen Canning warehouses, as well as Titletown Brewing Co.’s historic train depot, which pays homage to the past but embraces the future and brings new life to the banks of the Fox River.
“We’re working with a developer to rehab some old industrial warehouse space into offices, restaurants and retail,” explained Vonck. “We’re working with TWG out of Indianapolis to build a 109-unit affordable housing project and the developer has also proposed building some additional condos in the area.”
The Shipyard District is another priority of the city. Originally slated for a baseball stadium, plans have changed for the vacant property on the west side of the Fox River, where a proposed $10 million investment concept has been approved by the city’s Redevelopment Authority.
“We put together a package for more of an outdoor event space that blends space for festivals and concerts with waterfront amenities, a playground, splash pad, beach, park, container market that really brings out a bunch of containers to provide this pop up space for food, beverage and retail and gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to start to grow a business,” shared Vonck.
A transition is also underway in the city’s Legends District to support the activities taking place at nearby Lambeau Field. Ideally located near the Resch Center, Green Bay’s 10,000 square foot arena, and soon-to-be Brown County Expo Hall, the area has been identified for food, beverage, entertainment, hotel and residential development as well.
Further to district-focused development, Green Bay is ever-attentive to the need for infrastructure investment to support the growth that is taking place, as well as greater access and connectivity via multi-modal transportation in the city. “It’s going to be key for the City of Green Bay to make sure that we’re very well connected,” Mayor Genrich explained. This approach has been a competitive advantage of the city for some time, given the strength of its intermodal rail, marine, air and highway infrastructure.
To reinforce this strength, the city is in the process of reconstructing Webster Avenue, which serves as a main gateway into the city and provides connectivity to Interstate 43, as well as the Bay Beach attractions and waterfront area. Other plans include pedestrian and bicycle access to area amenities like Bay Beach from the city’s downtown core and future port facilities.
A great deal of activity is also taking place along the city’s waterfront to fully leverage its natural endowments. “We want to continue to acknowledge that this is a working river and we want to make space for current and future port facilities that will continue to contribute to the economy,” said Mayor Genrich.
Currently, there is a thirty-six-acre parcel of land that is home to coal piles – an eyesore and environmental concern – near the city’s downtown. The city, in addition to the Port of Green Bay and the Harbor Commission, is interested in relocating those piles to an existing decommissioned coal-powered plant site, freeing land for residential developments, parkland and public waterfront access.
“Between the city, the county and the Harbor Commission, we’re working to develop a joint vision for how we make that happen,” said Mayor Genrich, regarding what he referred to as, “a really exciting possibility with regard to a twenty-first century commercial port out near the mouth of the river near the Bay of Green Bay.”
Further to infrastructure and development, one of the major needs identified by the city is more diverse housing stock, especially in the city’s downtown core. Recognizing this as an opportunity, the city has taken possession of a city block and has issued requests for proposals to develop mixed-use concepts with a residential focus.
Certainly, neighborhood development is having a profound impact on the community. Vonck noted that there are forty-five active neighborhood associations in the city that are actively engaged in making Green Bay a better place to call home.
Thoughtful planning has served Green Bay well and this will continue to be the city’s strategy as it develops as a community and as an economy. By positioning itself as an economic and social hub for Northeastern Wisconsin, the city continues to demonstrate how collaborative development can spur growth and prosperity for all.