Broadway District, Green Bay, Wisconsin: Green Bay's Mall-ternative

2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner

Download Main Street News PDF - 2009/02-03

Visit the On Broadway District

The Broadway District sits on the west bank of the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The history of this "gateway" waterway area stems back thousands of years for Native Americans. It later became a trading and cultural center for 200 years under three different flags as part of America's early history. The district is located on the very spot where the first European set foot in the Midwest in 1632—a Frenchman, Jean Nicolet, set up Fort Howard within the boundaries of today's Broadway District. Commerce turned the Broadway District into a thriving business district by the turn of the century.

Events fill the streets with more than 200,000 people each year.

Credit: OMichael Peters

Ironically, however, it was the growth of industry that led to its decline. As factories expanded, so did the number of bars and taverns, and eventually, the crime rate. "Fifteen years ago the street was lined with derelict buildings, joyless taverns, and street vagrants out of a Dickens novel with names like 'Rooster' and 'Crowbar,'" says Alex Morgan Galt, co-owner of Kavarna Coffeehouse.

By 1995, the year On Broadway, Inc. (OBI), got its start, the area had been neglected for more than 60 years, and previous attempts at revitalization through single projects had failed. When Green Bay's then-mayor took office, he made renewing the Broadway district and galvanizing community activists priorities by seeking Main Street program status.

Michelle Zjala Winter, an OBI board member and founding task force participant, points out that "there had been several attempts to reclaim the area, mostly city dollars thrown at a 'problem' area." But with the Main Street approach, the young organization realized it finally had a solid plan for the downtown.

OBI board members launched a fund-raising effort and successfully secured $400,000 in less than one month. Then they began to discuss investing in the community with developers. Getting a prominent investor on board to tackle a major eyesore – the Accredited Cheese Co. – was a significant vote of confidence that made others in the community take notice. A year after OBI's inception, four business owners got the ball rolling by rehabbing their buildings.

Changing Perceptions

Revitalization Statistics – 1995-2008

  • Population: 102,313
  • District Size: 48 blocks
  • Year of Incorporation: 1995
  • Net New Jobs: 907
  • Net New Businesses: 89
  • Building Rehabs: 91
  • New Buildings: 9
  • Vacancy rate when program began: 10%
  • Vacancy rate today: 20%
  • Public Investment: $4,269,970
  • Private Investment: $49,943,503

A major obstacle to revitalizing the district was dealing with the highest crime rate in northeast Wisconsin. The city launched a community policing effort called Beat Cops, which worked closely with OBI to clean up the district and focus on safety. As a result, the district saw an almost 80 percent reduction in crime between 1995 and 2000, and Beat Cops won an International Community Policing Award in 1997.

From 1998-2002 the district's multi-year, multi-phase street-scape project set the stage for new private investment as well as giving the area a new look to go with its changing image. The city updated the infrastructure, repaved the streets, created wider sidewalks, added more on-street parking, and improved traffic control. The Design Committee assisted with suggestions for pedestrian-friendly design elements to help rebuild the urban fabric. New benches, hanging baskets and planters, and lighting elements embedded in the sidewalks made the streetscape safer, more comfortable, and more appealing to investors.

After the hard hats were hung up, OBI launched a marketing campaign that labeled the Broadway District as "Green Bay's Mall-ternative." Brochures, billboards, and radio and television advertising tagged with this catchy slogan helped promote the area's businesses.

Complementing the image campaign is a full calendar of events, listed in the organization's full-color Merge magazine, which is published every other month, as well as on its website. In its fifth year, the summertime weekly farmers market convenes more than 120 vendors who sell everything from fresh produce to homemade jam, fine arts, carved wood sculptures, and more. More than 2,500 people come out each Wednesday to sip wine or beer and wander from table to table, meeting friends and grabbing dinner before heading over to the park for a free concert. As OBI likes to point out, the 17-week market season brings 17 times the traffic to the district and 17 times more exposure to local businesses.

Design assistance, building improvement incentives, and small business assistance holistically strengthen the commercial district.

Credit: OBI

Other events, too, fill up the streets with more than 200,000 people each year. Taste on Broadway showcases local eating establishments, Winterfest celebrates the cold weather with an ice sculpture bonanza, and Pumpkin-Palooza makes harvest time zanier than ever. Also, the Lighting Ceremony On Broadway, which now features energy-efficient LED light bulbs, adds a sustainability component to the holiday season. OBI reports an average retail sales increase by about 28 percent during events. It has also learned that event participants are quite satisfied with Broadway: nearly 100 percent of new visitors surveyed plan to come back!

Supporting Local Businesses

Main Street promotions have benefited many business owners. One winery owner remarked that during the farmers market, new customers have sampled more than 100 cases of his wine. As a result his winery has seen a measurable increase in foot traffic and sales. In fact, he even opened a new winery in Green Bay almost two years ago.

Local businesses have also been adding to the fun with their own events. The Titletown Brewing Company hosts an annual Oktoberfest with authentic German food, ale, and music; and The Gift Itself shop offers jewelry and art classes. While it is not an event, per se, the Broadway Lights, Wednesday Nights extended hours promotion keeps local businesses open in the evenings to maximize shopping convenience.

The Economic Restructuring Committee has been busy supporting local businesses, too. The team works in partnership with the local Small Business Assistance Center, which has an incubator and classes. OBI's website has tips and resources for opening a new business and the organization sponsors retail consultant visits for its members. Façade and sign grants are available, as is the Window Replacement Program, which gives businesses a financial incentive to replace tinted windows with clear glass.

Merchants have definitely noticed. Alex Galt of Kavarna appreciates OBI's assistance. "Whether they are helping to dig up statistics for a new business plan, providing a sign grant, or coordinating district marketing campaigns, it is difficult to imagine being in business without this kind of advocacy."

The camaraderie among merchants and the commitment of OBI and its partners to assisting businesses are definitely apparent to the district's patrons. Celestine Jeffreys explains that customers like the diverse products and services as well as the coherent business area. But what is most notable is that business owners "know their customers by name, not just because it is good business, but because they view us as neighbors and friends."

Protecting the Past

Ironically, because people seemed to "forget" about the Broadway district during the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood was spared the "tear it down and build a mall" destiny that plagued so many traditional commercial districts. Untouched by urban renewal, the community today has a healthy inventory of historic buildings that are being restored to their former glory through new investment.

When OBI applied to become a Main Street program, the city of Green Bay did not have a strong historic preservation ethic, says Naletta Burr, the organization's former executive director. "Yet, we applied anyway and tackled the issue head on," she says. "Today, we are one of the leading authorities in the Green Bay area on historic preservation."

To that end, OBI was the first organization to advocate for historic preservation, fight teardowns, and use historic tax credits for rehab projects in Green Bay. Today, its hard work has paid off: the entire city "gets"  the value of preservation and property owners and developers are expected to seek an adaptive use of a historic building rather than demolishing it. Fittingly, the Broadway District is the only commercial district in all of Green Bay listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Looking to the Future

If you glance at the Broadway District Reinvestment Statistics (see page 12), you'll see that its vacancy rate has increased by 10 percent since OBI got started. This figure is actually a source of pride for the program. Why? First, the nuisance taverns and adult bookstores have been closed to make room for establishments more conducive to a family-friendly atmosphere. Second, thousands of square feet of available commercial space is coming online as the organization proceeds with its most inspiring innovative project: the Larson Green community initiated development.

In 2007, OBI purchased a 22-acre site, the vacant Larsen Canning Company, which is smack-dab in the middle of downtown. Sure, many people actually said the organization was crazy for acquiring the abandoned, dilapidated industrial site, but OBI had a vision. Instead of selling the land to another industrial company, which would probably generate only a few hundred jobs, the group created a master plan to tear down the fences, build new infrastructure, and link the neighborhood to the waterfront while rehabbing structures and constructing new buildings to create a mixed-use community.

OBI is also seeking the prestige of making this the first Leadership Energy Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) project in Wisconsin certified by the US Green Building Council.

To that end, 230,000 square feet of non-usable buildings had to be demolished, but so far, 92 percent of the materials have been recycled with only 20 tons going to the landfill. One warehouse was dismantled and reassembled in Minnesota, furniture and equipment were resold, and scrap metal and concrete were recycled. To pay homage to the community's heritage, the iconic Larsen smokestack will be retained. Various developers and business owners have already purchased some of the available sites and are creating new housing, offices, restaurants, and storefronts in new buildings and in rehabbed ones.

The actual property was valued at $6 million, but the owner, Birds Eye Foods, was an enthusiastic supporter of OBI's plans. The organization secured a $4 million loan through M&I Bank, with the city as its backer, to acquire the property for $35 million and use the remaining funds for planning and marketing. The federal New Market Tax Credits program is funding $3 million of the loan, and the other $1 million came from a traditional loan.

When completed, this project will add eight blocks to the downtown. Although the property is about 10 years out from completion, it has the potential to add $100 million to the city's tax roles. What's more, as vacancies are filled and parcels sold off, they bring OBI a significant funding stream.  Another interesting angle to this story—the project is called Larsen Green as a nod to its environmentally sustainable goals and to Larsen, the cannery's founder whose great grandson, Greg Larsen, is the president of OBI. Another twist? The development is located where Fort Howard once existed.

A large portion of OBI's funding has come from large corporations that were located outside of the district but were keen on developing the downtown and improving its image. Over time, those businesses left the area, and their funding dollars went with them. To make up for the budgetary shortfall, OBI investigated the feasibility of creating a business improvement district (BID) and explored whether they could get 60 percent of the business owners' support.

Almost 80 percent of the merchants favored the BID, but a small yet vocal minority and the city council refused to support the proposal. OBI's leadership knew it had a problem. Some business owners were willing to be assessed voluntarily for a BID, but those funds weren't enough to sustain the program. The group had a lot of outreach to do. "Several people said that Broadway looked done," says Larsen. "But there's a lot left to do and we have to keep the momentum going."

By preaching the positives that an improvement district would bring, OBI finally got the BID approved in 2005 and a governing board of directors was established. Although only 10 percent of OBI's budget comes from this funding stream, all of the BID's projects directly benefit the business district. From maintaining planters on the sidewalks to offering free wireless Internet on Broadway, property owners are getting a big bang for their buck.

Twelve is the New Twenty

In order to keep the organization focused, OBI led another visioning process that involved representatives from the city, residents, business and property owners, and other stakeholders. They imagined what the Broadway District could be like in 10 years, and now OBI uses that vision statement to check the appropriateness of new projects and committee work plans. Its partnership with the city has also helped the group stay focused. OBI's executive director, Kelly Czypinski, is part of the mayor's development team, and members of the city's economic development department sit on the Economic Restructuring Committee. The Larsen Green oversight committee contains members from both groups.

The Broadway District has come a long way in a short period of time. Since 1995, the organization has recruited 120 volunteers; attracted 89 net new businesses; seen the creation of 907 net new jobs; stamped out high crime; and became a visionary developer, which is a complex role for a small nonprofit to play.

"It takes vision, passion, planning, cooperation, selflessness, determination, and most importantly, it takes doing. Miss one of those pieces and you may have a success, but not a success story," reads OBI's application, which is sage advice for motivating other revitalizing communities. To put a point on the district's achievements, last year, OBI received the Wisconsin Main Street program's "20-Year Award for Best Improved Business Climate"—although the program was only 12 years old!

"When I began working in the Broadway district, I knew this would be a challenge," says Jim Engle, director of Wisconsin Main Street. "I am not aware of another traditional commercial district in the state that has experienced this kind of turnaround." He points out that the district is now the hippest place to be and he continues to be impressed by the ever-rising sophistication of OBI's projects, like Larsen Green.

Michael Iwinski, chairman of the local Historic Preservation Commission, says it best when he points out that before OBI's inception, the district "was not even a district—it was simply a dilapidated street with rundown buildings and a negative reputation." Today he says, "it is not just a district, it is a destination."