I have been called a riverfront advocate, a placemaking specialist and a community activist. Although I typically shy away from labels, I would be proud to represent any of these titles. So, imagine my delight when I heard about River + Bay, which is celebrating the uniqueness of our area, sharing personal stories, and bringing us together in our collective love for our community.
I was even more excited to see the word “river” in the title. It highlights a key feature that ties our communities together as a region. Not only does the Fox River provide scenic views and recreational opportunities, it connects us to our past and to our future. Our community leaders recognize this treasure and are beginning to embrace new opportunities to bring our riverfront back to just that – the forefront.
One project in particular stands out to me as a wonderful example of a community celebrating its heritage with a transformative redevelopment. Grand KaKalin in Kaukauna is the type of venture that defied all odds to become a successful, repurposed industrial site. The historic, 80,000-square-foot Eagle Mill in downtown Kaukauna (formerly home to Thilmany Papers) was in good condition, but it required more than just a little TLC. Starting in 2012, the five-year project required the vision of developers, a strong public-private partnership and, most of all, support of the community.
There were many things that helped this project succeed. Securing the Kaukauna Public Library and Expera Specialty Solutions as anchor tenants was key, as were the historic tax credits and state support from Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). Probably the most critical element that led to its success was the active engagement of the community. Thanks to the leadership of developer Randy Stadtmueller, placemaking was at the heart of this project with workshops and public input sessions scheduled throughout the process. This bottom-up approach included asking residents to help create a shared vision that they could be proud of. This approach also built trust between project partners and community leaders.
Today, the 1872 newly-restored building on Thilmany Road is one of the most unique and inspiring public libraries in Wisconsin, if not the Midwest. It serves as the corporate headquarters for Expera Specialty Solutions, North America’s largest specialty paper manufacturer. It tells the story of Kaukauna, originally known as Grand KaKalin, derived from the Menominee word Ogag-kane meaning “stopping place of the pike.” It is a historic landmark that represents the beginning of the industrial revolution and the rise of the paper industry in Northeast Wisconsin. Most of all, it provides a vibrant new space for people to connect, share ideas and soak up the historic backdrop and majestic river views.
Grand KaKalin is becoming a catalyst for new businesses in the lower level and additional development nearby. Its potential has already been exposed by Jean Detjen’s magical “Take Me to the River” multi-sensory, interactive art exhibit held in the lower level in November.
The rebirth of the old Eagle Mill at Grand KaKalin is proof that magic happens when old meets new. It can also serve as a symbol for each of us and our ability to reinvent ourselves as we grow and learn and evolve. The beginning of 2017 is the perfect opportunity for us to push ourselves professionally and personally.
This year, as I take on new challenges, I hope to channel my inner “placemaker” role by emulating Randy Stadtmueller and his style of seeing the big picture, taking calculated risks and looking for solutions that benefit the greater good. I will also seek opportunities to collaborate with community-minded individuals to make a difference in our area.
Finally, I want to challenge all of us to step outside our comfort zone and take a chance, make a change or try new things. After all, the greatest risk is not taking one.
Photos: John Adams