By Ben Rodgers
GREEN BAY – The newest company to set up shop in the Rail Yard Innovation District is the epitome of what the development is hoping to attract.
Leighton Interactive cut the ribbon on a new workspace Jan. 28.
Paul Belschner, president/CEO of project developer Base Companies, sees it as one of many signs of growth for the once blighted section of downtown.
“If we’re successful in building urban density, such that our community hasn’t seen in decades, I think we’re going to be continually adding additional buildings or activations of the Rail Yard beyond the groundwork that we’re laying today,” Belschner said.
The Rail Yard consists of the area along Broadway immediately northeast of Dousman Street and west of Donald Driver Way.
Belschner said Titletown Brewing Company served as the catalyst for the development and chose in 2014 to expand operations into the old Larsen Canning facility.
“Those facilities were idle for over 10 years, and frankly in pretty significant disrepair,” he said.
With Base Companies and Titletown working together in 2015-16, 130,000 square feet of office space was added to the development.
Then, on Dec. 1, 2017, Base Companies acquired 15.77 acres of land in the development district.
After extensive building renovation, there is modern space for small, growing businesses on the forefront of a changing occupational landscape.
“We want to continue to foster an environment of successful, next-generation business creations,” Belschner said.
“We’ve seen in our community deeply-rooted organizations our community is built on. Paper mills, power generation, Shopko, from a retailer’s perspective, they don’t all last forever. We have to have a mechanism in place to replace those businesses and grow beyond that.”
He said the development also boasts uniqueness, character, built-out facilities, technology infrastructure, restaurants, walkability, living options, urbanism and waterfront access.
Belschner said this is where Leighton Interactive fits perfectly into the development.
Originally from St. Cloud, Minnesota, Leighton Interactive selected Green Bay to expand into because an acquisition gave it a number of clients in the area, some of which are now on the same block.
During the acquisition, Leighton had a space in the Urban Hub, a co-working space for startups focused on accelerating community, innovation, technology and collaboration.
“We weren’t technically an incubator startup, but we were here,” said Dan Soldner, Leighton Interactive president. “There’s an established company in Minnesota, but we thought, ‘Gosh, I think Urban Hub would be such a cool place for us,’ that’s what it was intended to do, let young companies come in and grow without heavy overhead.”
The expanded move to the Rail Yard was the most logical choice, Soldner said.
“We literally followed the path they would love 100 people to follow,” he said. “We start up small, in terms of client list, said ‘Let’s start here,’ signed a lease and moved into a building I’d love to outgrow.”
Leighton Interactive is a business-to-business marketing agency which focuses on connecting revenue to marketing.
“We can’t smoke cigars on the golf course anymore and try to make the sale,” he said. “We need to be where people want, and maybe that can happen afterward, but the prerequisite is you give me, the buyer, the power to educate myself before I engage with you or decide I want to buy something from you.”
If a business has a niche product that is focused on specific industry segments, Leighton will make those in the industry aware of that product, Soldner said.
It’s a goal-oriented process with a web development emphasis that connects buyers and sellers.
Soldner said the area offers opportunities for growing companies like his.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is our Mecca, this is where we should be,’” Soldner said. “This is the best market ever for Leighton Interactive. There are just so many businesses that fit our niche.”
He said the new office in the Rail Yard also showcases the rebounding growth in the area.
“Green Bay is vibrant, and people are staying and people are coming,” he said.
Success breeds success
Brian Johnson, executive director of On Broadway, Inc., and city council alderperson for District 9, said the success of the Rail Yard will have a positive effect downtown.
Johnson said any neighborhood or city center needs three things to be successful: housing, jobs and recreation.
“It’s a successful model that works all across the world, and I think it’s something we lost sight of a little bit here,” he said. “Historically, we’ve built corridors that separated residential from commercial, and it’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing. I think the Rail Yard is developing the sort of community that will have available everything residents will need.”
Right now, Johnson said the most pressing need near Broadway is housing.
However, as part of the Rail Yard, there are 340 apartment units either complete, under construction or under contract.
“About a year ago, we set a housing goal of 200 new units in five years,” Johnson said. “It looks like we’re going to smash that in less than two years, but it doesn’t mean we’re done. We’re going to continue to push. The more housing we have down here, the better.”
Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich said he is hopeful the new housing, which consists of some low-income housing, will create a housing trend to benefit more people.
“It’s really important that what’s being developed in the Rail Yard is open to everybody of all income levels,” Genrich said. “So as we speak, there are 107 affordable housing units being built, and what I hope we’ll see is that will be a place where people who are currently in some of those near west side neighborhoods who are currently affordably housed, some of whom unfortunately not in the nicest accommodations, will be able to relocate to the Rail Yard District and really force the market to respond and provide the opportunity for some high-quality housing across the neighbors and to the south in the Shipyard District we’ve been really focused on as well.”
The Rail Yard has already made a positive impact for the Broadway District in numerous ways, but creating value across multiple market segments, in a previously underused area, will help taxpayers as well, Genrich said.
“It’s been hugely impactful already,” he said. “You look at what might have been, which was a Walmart Superstore. Just looking at the raw numbers, something like that was estimated to have a valuation between $10 and $12 million. As a result of what’s already been developed, or is on the precipice of being developed in the Rail Yard, we’re at $44 million. So, four times the valuation of what we would have seen with a Walmart Superstore there.”