Time for a Downtown Entertainment District: Part II

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | feb. 2018

Part Two of an Expanded Three-Part Series

Sunlight streams into a potential dance studio on the third floor of the 109 N Adams building. Denis Gullickson photo.Last issue, this column made a pitch for the establishment of an entertainment district in the Green Bay's downtown core.

Recommended, was that the Meyer Theater – powered by Let Me Be Franks' regular performances and bolstered by national touring acts and some local productions – serve as the flagship for a full armada of downtown art and entertainment constituting a living, breathing arts and entertainment district.

Further recommended was that the wide-open spaces of the former Schauer and Schumacher furniture store buildings be converted into black box theater, rehearsal and studio space, classrooms and the like – all in support of our area's arts and performance communities. Also that – at some future point – the former Vic Theater be reopened as a 500-seat venue more-useful to local performance groups.

This month and next, we'll flesh out that proposal with some detail, tie it to the most-recent strategic plans developed for the downtown area and present a projected timeline and overall funding plan.

Intrinsic in the plan outlined in last month's column was a prominent place for the visual arts as well as the performance arts; artists of all types would have an even-greater role in creating the vibe that says downtown Green Bay is re-assuming its role at the center of this area's cultural character.

And God love the Packers, but that cultural center does not lie at 1265 Lombardi Avenue. Nor should it.

Area Arts and Performance Groups Are Alive, Kicking and Deserve More

Other towns have done this. Other towns are doing this.

For years, Manitowoc – a city a third Green Bay's size – has had the Clarkbridge Facility – a former public school now a concept in shared space by civic organizations, including arts and theater.

A hop and a skip down the interstate, Sheboygan is half Green Bay's size, but a near-epicenter of culture. It boasts numerous high-end facilities that underpin the local and regional arts and performance communities – among them the Stephanie Weill Center where movies, musicals and more intertwine and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center where dance, art, music and theater offerings coexist with classes, demonstrations, lectures and tours.

Appleton – Green Bay's arch-contender since time immemorial – has often seemed to be one or more steps ahead. There was that “Mile of Music" thing, for instance. So it is with a recent announcement that arts organizations of all stripes are assuming space in downtown Appleton, supported by city leadership and “Fox Cities Creates" – an “arts workgroup" with members ranging from Arts Wisconsin, NE Wisconsin Arts Association, Appleton Downtown, The Trout Museum and the Appleton PAC.

Enough said; Green Bay must redouble its current efforts.

But, first, let's be clear: Green Bay has an ambitious bevy of talented individuals, groups and organizations laboring to bring art and performance to area folks. This proposal acknowledges their existence and persistence; it suggests that they deserve a much-bigger foothold in the downtown core.

Along those lines, kudos to …

… the ArtGarage – “though a mile from downtown 'tis true" – for taking huge, important steps in this direction.

… Mosaic Arts for serving as a vital umbrella for all area arts and performance entities.

… Downtown Green Bay, Inc. for providing the oomph and passion to better the city's downtown.

… the many, many other arts and performance individuals, groups and organizations hammering away at their crafts across the city proper and beyond.

There are great things happening everywhere. It's time for these efforts to coalesce and grow accordingly.

With the idea of submitting a proposal for the Schauer and Schumacher buildings to city's Economic Development Department, the board of the Green Bay Theatre Company (GBTC) directed this writer, as acting president, to meet with as many arts and performance entities as possible beginning last summer.

The idea was to determine the need and support for a possible arts and performance district in the downtown core – including a facility such as the one proposed for Schauer and Schumacher buildings – and the willingness of such entities to utilize such a facility if it existed.

We did that.

Nearly three dozen individuals, groups and organizations were consulted and – “to a person" – the response was positive and the input was invaluable. Above all, access to affordable rehearsal and related spaces and the opportunity to collaborate and “cross-pollinate" (one person's phrase) were listed as most desirable.

The other conclusion from the input gathered? That there are too many quality performance groups in Green Bay – art, dance, music, theater and a host of other fields – that do not get the attention, the resources, the turnout or the facilities they deserve.

On the heels of those visits, the GBTC submitted an “Initial Expression of Interest in the Schauer and Schumacher Building" last August. On January 12, it submitted “Part A" of a formal proposal for those buildings which laid out the physical design and programming for the facility based on the input amassed.

Sun filters through stone arches into projected rehearsal space on the second floor of the 227 E Walnut building. Denis Gullickson photo.Strategic Plans – Check!

Every recent strategic plan for Downtown Green Bay shares a couple of basic themes:

1.The downtown district – from the Fox Riverfront eastward – is a resource warranting attention and further development. (And that's not to ignore a vibrant near-west side of the river, either.)

2.a. More can be done to draw visitors and residents to the area by supporting and expanding the downtown's current offerings. And, b. The basic tools exist to do this.

As the most-recent expression of those themes, Downtown Green Bay, Inc.'s (DGBI) 2018 Operating Plan, “Downtown District: The Heart and Soul of Green Bay," delineates its objective, “to provide leadership and management for revitalizing the Downtown District [by] emphasizing community-based planning, planning that appreciates the advantages of low-cost, modest initiatives over the blockbuster resuscitation efforts of large-scale stand-alone projects" adding that such efforts “give growth to new businesses, add substance to the local economy and export their innovations to the rest of the city."

Flowing from that objective, DGBI's activities for 2018 include Business Development (including the Schauer and Schumacher buildings) as a key focus area. Other projected activities include Marketing “to re-establish the brand" of the Downtown District so as “to attract entrepreneurs, residents, and visitors..." and events, including “developing new events that attract residents and visitors from all walks of life to the district."


To a “t" – this is exactly what the GBTC's Schauer and Schumacher proposal has at its own “heart and soul": a 200-seat black box theater available to local groups; affordable rehearsal space for area theater groups; affordable studio, classroom, meeting and office space and ancillary facilities; educational programming that brings professionals and aspiring artists and performers together; and an evolving plan of operation that expands with the growth and demand of its stakeholders.

This can work. We know because part of our research took us to Madison's Bartell Theater where six theater groups co-exist wonderfully to the benefit of all.

And let's reiterate another aspect of our proposal meant to give our area's talented young people a reason to stick around – a core tenet of the GBTC's Mission Statement: a downtown think tank where young (and forward-thinking) professionals gather on a monthly basis to brainstorm solutions to area problems presented to them by civic groups, local governments and private industry.

This, too, can work. We know because we visited 100 State, “Wisconsin's largest co-working community … dedicated to providing education resources, events, mentorship and more to Madison area businesses and arts communities." At 100 State – very near the state capitol – visionaries and entrepreneurs of all brands and sizes share space and collaborate to the betterment of themselves and their city.

In the process, let's also create a partnership with UWGB, St. Norbert and NWTC as necessary players in that downtown think tank and the arts and performance offerings at the Schauer and Schumacher facility.

This can work, too; we've done the research.

No need for a reinvented wheel; most aspects of the GBTC proposal have been successfully done elsewhere and can be emulated.

Next, Next Steps

Okay, so this project is going to take time and money – precious commodities, always in short supply. It will also require a strategic plan sensitive to those items and particularly inclusive of the input from potential stakeholders to date.

Between now and next month, the GBTC will hammer out those two necessities.

Coming up are two important dates:

January 31, when the GBTC submits “Part B" of its proposal with an approximate Timeline and Financial Plan.

February 13, when the city's Redevelopment Authority meets and the GBTC makes its case.

Stay tuned.

Contact educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson with your ideas on a downtown entertainment district and the Schauer and Schumacher building's central role in it at gbtheatrecompany@aol.com. And thanks to those of you who have already done so.

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