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On the grow in Green Bay, Fox Cities

Courtesy Greater Green Bay CVB

Convention options are about to grow in northeastern Wisconsin, with Green Bay and Appleton talking about expansions at their primary convention facilities.

The two cities, 30 miles apart, worry that without more meeting space, business will slip away. Expansions will ensure they stay competitive with one another and with other small cities, leaders have said.

“We’ve had a number of groups that have been coming to Green Bay for a number of years, but as they have been growing, our convention center has not,” said Brad Toll, president and CEO of the Greater Green Bay CVB.

Appleton’s talks are in the earliest of stages. The idea is to build an exhibit hall adjacent to its largest convention hotel, the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, but no land has yet been purchased.

In the meantime, Green Bay’s mayor hopes his city’s project will move forward in 2012. A design and a location have been agreed upon for the expansion, which would bring the KI Convention Center’s total meeting space to 75,000 square feet, making it the fifth-largest convention center in Wisconsin.

The expansion will span a street and top the Clarion Hotel and its parking lot. By building up and over, the center buys air space, not land, and avoids losing parking spaces.

The design also does not require the typical sky-bridge connector; instead, an escalator will move attendees into the new ballroom and the prefunction and meeting rooms.

“We didn’t want to connect through a skyway because a lot of times that makes attendees feel disconnected [from the convention center],” said Toll. The proposed design keeps the building “all attached and contiguous.”

It also gives Green Bay the opportunity to show off its Fox River riverfront. New prefunction space will overlook the river, bustling with the 200 commercial ships that arrive each year, as well as recreational boaters.

The expansion also puts the KI Center closer to the three-block CityDeck, a boardwalk park along the river. CityDeck is being completed in phases, and the last phase will make it more of a potential event site for conventions.

Bands will play on a stage being built out over the river. Steps leading down to the stage will double as seating for as many as 500 attendees.

Two hotels are connected to the KI Center: the Clarion and the former Hotel Sierra, which this summer was purchased by Hyatt Hotels. It will become a Hyatt on Main, with the parent company making renovations to bring the all-suites property to Hyatt standards. All together, the two hotels have 400 rooms.

The next step for the expansion, “figuring out financing,” is the most challenging, said Toll. That issue could be ironed out as early as late October, so work could begin next year.

CityDeck, the proposed convention center expansion and the opening of a children’s museum a few blocks from the KI Center are inspiring other downtown development. Hagemeister Park, a new restaurant named for the Green Bay Packers’ old practice field, will soon open in a revitalized building along the CityDeck.

Captain’s Walk Winery will add an event space to the handsome white frame home that serves as its tasting room eight blocks from the convention center. Groups that want to take events there will be able to hire a new shuttle bus operated by the same company that runs Green Bay’s excursion boat, the Foxy Lady, which docks near the convention center.

Another new venue that has injected Green Bay with life is the Green Bay Distillery, which opened in August within view of Lambeau Field, home of the Packers. The building briefly housed an entertainment venue called Tom, Dick and Harry’s, and is two blocks from the football stadium. In addition to beers, it serves meals with Wisconsin twists. Its hamburger on a pretzel bun with a slathering of cheese curds is a top seller; there’s also a braut of the week and 13 house sauces for wings, the same number as the number of championships the Packers have won.

Large-screen televisions as well as Packers photos enliven the walls.

The venue was designed for casual groups, with an 8,000-square-foot private hall and a game area with pool tables, air hockey, darts and Skee-Ball. An indoor/outdoor patio has large garage doors that can be rolled up in good weather.

For now, the restaurant serves beer and dishes made with beer and other liquors. An on-site microbrewery is planned on for the site.

And speaking of Lambeau Field, a project began this fall to expand seating. More than 6,000 seats will be added as well as a rooftop viewing area, which might work well for groups that are enjoying Lambeau’s large atrium, which has plenty of room for events but no views of the famous playing field.