Path to Exhibition Center has been full of twists and turns

APPLETON – It’s a project that’s been 30 years in the making.

Come Thursday, the Fox Cities Exhibition Center will open for business, a celebratory moment for a high-profile community project that has been filled with twists and turns, high hopes, skepticism, political maneuvering and financial challenges.

“It’s been a long and exciting process, and at times I think you thought it was never going to happen, but I also think it’s been a very judicious process,” said Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The $31.9 million exhibition center has been built on the south side of Lawrence Street across from the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel. A skywalk connects the facilities, and the project borders Jones Park, which is undergoing its own renovations to match the new center.

The public opening will be from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday and will include a ribbon-cutting and tours of the facility.

The center is owned by Appleton and will be managed by the Radisson staff. The money borrowed to pay for construction will be paid back through higher hotel and motel room taxes that took effect in the Fox Cities on Jan. 1.

The exhibition center has 30,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space and 17,000 square feet of outdoor plaza space.

Ten communities — Appleton, Fox Crossing, Grand Chute, Kaukauna, Kimberly, Little Chute, Menasha, Neenah, town of Neenah and Sherwood — raised room taxes in 2016 to pay back the loans taken out for the project.

“It puts the whole Fox Cities community on the map,” said Walt Rugland, longtime advocate for the exhibition center and former executive vice president for Thrivent Financial. “We have a lot going on, so convention planners can use the whole community any way they want to — visit the (Grignon Mansion) in Kaukauna, go to the Paper Discovery Center, or restaurants down on the river.”

Decade of studies and analysis

In 1987, the Appleton Common Council, along with the Outagamie County Board, Grand Chute Town Board and other entities created a joint task force to explore the possibility of an exhibition center in the Fox Cities.

That marked the beginning of this journey. But it would be two decades before any significant progress would take hold.

There were studies in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2008 that serious conversations began. That year, another feasibility study was conducted by the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and others.

The study found that the center would bring in 28,000 hotel room nights annually, in addition to $8.4 million of economic impact annually — or $105 million over 20 years.

A review of that 2008 study completed in 2014 found that the economic impact would be closer to $6.5 million.

“We’re doing this for visitors to spend their money, enjoy our community and come back,” Rugland said. “And that’s the value of it.”

While there were moments of concern that the studies “would end up on a shelf,” Rugland said he “wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think (the project) would happen.”

When the interest seemed to dwindle even after 2008 momentum boost, Rugland decided to start a nonprofit, Fox Cities Exhibition Center Inc., to gather community stakeholders and get the idea moving forward.

The 2014 study demonstrated, however, that the center wouldn’t be financially successful if owned by a nonprofit and operated by a for-profit hotel, Rugland said. The only feasible option, according to the study, was to have a municipality own the building to avoid property taxes that a nonprofit and for-profit partnership couldn’t afford.

Appleton city leaders and staff began to champion the idea and tried to get other communities involved.

That didn’t mean it was smooth sailing the rest of the way. City staff had to negotiate with Outagamie County to get a deal for the Lawrence Street site, owned by the county as a parking lot.

 Appleton aldermen then delayed voting on buying the Lawrence Street site, eventually rejected it, and then brought it back for a yes vote in 2015.

Before that debate, the Paper Valley Hotel — intended to be the anchor for the project as a convention-quality hotel next door — defaulted on its mortgage, was sold at a sheriff’s sale, and was under new management by spring 2015.

Add in the fact that 10 municipalities are project stakeholders, which only added time and effort to the process, Seidl said.

“This is a very unique project in that it’s taken 10 municipalities to fund it,” she said. “With the nature of our geography, you’re serving a lot of different folks so it takes more time than a single municipality doing it on their own. Obviously, it was the right way to go.”

Some unknowns amid the celebrations 

It hasn’t been an easy road for the $31.9 million project. And with the opening this week, there will be lots of pomp and circumstance, but there are still some unknowns.

Appleton is fronting the costs of the project while working with local banks to get a financing deal in place, as opposed to pursuing traditional revenue bonds. It’s a path that has drawn the ire of some of the other community stakeholders, most notably Neenah Mayor Dean Kaufert.

The conflict heated up this fall when leaders from Appleton and Neenah battled over surplus room taxes from the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center that were to be used as collateral for the financing plan. The group eventually struck a deal, but sour feelings are still harbored as evidenced by a meeting last week.

“I’m trying to keep this positive,” Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna said on Wednesday after the meeting. “This is a great thing for our community. It’s a beautiful building and it’s in the right place.”

On Monday the city’s Finance Committee will receive a presentation on financing options for the project. The Appleton Common Council and the advisory committee for the center also will weigh in on the options.

There’s also the question of how successful the exhibition center will be. So far, there are 17 events booked for this year, and one each in 2019 and 2020, according to a December booking summary for the center. From 2021 through 2026, there are no events booked, but there are 21 prospective events listed.

The two major events booked this year are Pierce Manufacturing’s annual sales meeting at the end of January, and Gov. Walker’s Conference on Tourism in March.

“We are working right now on a bid for 2022, and that’s the first available date that group has open because larger groups often book multi-year contracts or book far ahead if the space is premium,” Seidl said. “There will be a three- to five-year ramp-up for large groups.

“You don’t want it to sit empty, so we want to do everything we can to make sure it’s a great stream of business.”

Rugland said he expects the exhibition center to compete with centers in La Crosse, Madison, Wisconsin Dells, as well as other convention centers in the Midwest such as those in Rochester, Minnesota and Des Moines, Iowa.

“As soon as (event planners) see we’re really up and running, I think we’re going to be in good shape,” Rugland said. “So how many will come? Time will tell.

“I think it’s going to end up being utilized by the convention business much more aggressively and quickly than we actually thought it would be.”

Timeline of the Fox Cities Exhibition Center

(Source: Post-Crescent archives, Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau)

May 6, 1987: Appleton aldermen, Outagamie County Board and others approve creation of a task force to explore exhibition center project. 

1996: Another study completed by the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.

2008: Feasibility study conducted by the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and others. 

Nov. 9, 2011: Appleton aldermen agree to set aside $3.4 million in capital improvement dollars for an exhibition center.

2012: Radisson Paper Valley Hotel defaults on $27 million balloon mortgage.

June 2012: Box design for exhibition center unveiled. 

January 2013: Radisson Paper Valley Hotel sold for $17.8 million in Outagamie County Sheriff’s sale to LNR Partners.

August 2013: Hotel management reaches lease agreement with exhibition center board.

Jan. 7, 2015: Appleton aldermen vote against purchasing land for the exhibition center.

March 4, 2015: Appleton agrees to buy land from Outagamie County for $2.1 million for exhibition center.

May 2015: Florida-based Inner Circle Investments agrees to purchase the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel.

Oct. 2015: Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna visits 10 communities involved to encourage them to raise its room taxes for the project.

Oct. 28, 2015: Appleton aldermen approve the cooperation agreement, room tax ordinance and tax zone agreements.

Nov. 2015: All 10 communities involved — Appleton, Fox Crossing, Grand Chute, Kaukauna, Kimberly, Little Chute, Menasha, Neenah, town of Neenah and Sherwood — agree to raise room taxes to fund the exhibition center.

July 6, 2016: Appleton Common Council approves $2.6 million of architectural, construction contracts.

Sept. 1, 2016: Advisory committee on exhibition center approves $31 million park level design over original $29 million design.

Sept. 29, 2016: Groundbreaking for Fox Cities Exhibition Center.

2016-2017: Construction continues at the exhibition center.

Jan. 2017: Exhibition center books first contract for Pierce Manufacturing sales meeting in January 2018.

May 5, 2017: Gov. Scott Walker and Stephanie Klett, secretary of tourism, visit the exhibition center site to promote the region’s tourism .

July 2017: Renovations at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel begin.

Dec. 2017: Exhibition center inspected by building inspectors, fire department.

Jan. 11, 2017: Public opening celebration set for exhibition center.