The Mighty Fox: A River Reconsidered II

denis gullickson | talking titletown | may 2018

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

This vintage map depicts both Green Bay and Fort Howard in the year 1867.While it's often a delight to recall the Green Bay of my and fellow baby boomers' youth, I don't long for those as the “good old days." Instead, I am excited to see a once-bustling downtown that was essentially destroyed by the wrong-headed Gregby Renewal Project making a comeback today.

No, it is not what it was: Kaaps is gone. Main Street will never again look the way it did back then. The iconic Pranges Christmas windows are history.

What is there, however, is new and reassuring. And, growing by the day.

Put on a fresh set of eyes and take a look. Things are abuzz on both sides of the Fox River as Broadway and Washington Streets resume their respective roles as parallel anchors to this city's inner verve.

Better yet, the contemporary élan is embracing the Mighty Fox River itself.

Rock Bottom

In last month's column, we left things looking pretty grim. Downtown Green Bay had surrendered to the urban sprawl and the Fox River had succumbed to a century of use as a handy sewage system.

With its stirrings trackable to the 1956-efforts of a cadre of downtown businessmen, the Gregby Renewal project was a whack at restoring “downtown Green Bay to the regional shopping hub of northeast Wisconsin." But even its name — a contraction of “Greater Green Bay" — said this try was going to be addition by subtraction.

The Green Bay Redevelopment Authority was formed in 1967 to oversee the project. The 1972 demolition of long-time businesses in the Washington-Main Street area came with as much clamor as acclaim. In 1975, ground was broken for a brand-spanking-new downtown shopping facility — the Port Plaza Mall — that would burn brightly for a while, then flicker and flame out altogether.

At that point, what? The city had hinged most of its hope for revitalization on one huge votive candle. Snuffed out — the downtown pretty much went dark and other businesses did what they could before hanging it up, too.

The Fox River continued to ooze northward, a slow, steady, silent marker of the decline.

Meanwhile, life on the far-far east and west sides of town was bustling. Nearly in perceptible waves emanating outward from the former epicenter of downtown Green Bay — human endeavor shaped a network of suburbs and suburban shopping centers and strip malls. Business corridors along Ashland, Military, Mason, University and other thoroughfares flourished — as did adjacent areas.

Near Lambeau Field, Oneida Street and its tributaries could hardly keep up.

Turning a Corner

The 1979-completion of the highway beltline around Green Bay cemented the idea that you circumvent the town entirely. Fourteen exits off that beltline fed the business arteries that pulsed on the city's outskirts. Port Plaza mall sputtered along — eventually closing as “Washington Commons" in 2006. The writing was on the wall when two of its anchor stores — Younkers and JC Penney — joined the migration to Ashwaubenon's Bay Park Square.

However, several office buildings did eventually open downtown restoring some activity and ArtStreet debuted in 1982 — drawing crowds to downtown Green Bay for an event for the first time in years. Construction of the $3.8 million River's Edge apartments on the west bank of the Fox in 1986 demonstrated that folks were willing to work and live downtown — even viewing the water as an amenity.

Amenity to some; burden to others — the 1980s were a contentious time environmentally for the mighty Fox River. The manufacture of carbonless copy paper by papermills along the Fox from 1957 to 1971 resulted in the discharge of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river until they were banned. The argument about what to do — if anything — and who was responsible — if anyone — would rage for a couple of more decades.

The damage, however, had been done and the argument for “remediation" — as St. Norbert College Professor James Hodgson put it in a 2001 paper — “centers on determining responsibility for contamination of the Fox River and assigning cleanup costs."

It would be another eight years before the “Fox River Cleanup Project" would finally begin dredging, capping and covering PCBs from the river's bottom over a 13-mile stretch of the Lower Fox. That little matter of “assigning cleanup costs," raised by Hodgson in 2001, would take years to settle with some headway finally coming as late as 2016.

While actual dredging didn't begin until April, 2009, it did finally begin and has continued to date.

The project currently dredges over half-a-million cubic yards of sediment, treats just under a billion gallons of water and hauls 300,000+ tons of materials to landfills each year at a cost of millions and millions of dollars in actual cost and oversight per annum.

Celebrate!

2004 marked Green Bay's sesquicentennial celebration. It had been 150 years since the city had been declared a city and 239 years since it had seen it first, permanent, year-round white settler. Of course, its real origins dated well before that to Native peoples who had already been around for thousands of years.

That August, a parade began at city hall where a time capsule was buried and then wended its way through the downtown, over the Main Street bridge to Leicht Park situated snugly on the west bank of the Mighty Fox River. There, a full-fledged festival was held to commemorate the occasion.

The following year, 2005, the city council approved the “Boardwalk Plan" intended to “[soften] the river's edge bringing pedestrian[s] in touch with the historic river. Boat docks, pedestrian walks, open spaces and stage areas" were also key parts of the plan.

In rapid succession thereafter, the city gave “go-aheads" to the River Center project, a mixed-use development tied to the east-bank Boardwalk, and upgrading Leicht Memorial Park, featuring a boat landing, stage area and a row of international flags representing the area's ethnic heritage.

In 2006, Bay Fest moved from the UWGB grounds to Leicht Park. That year also saw the inaugural Baylake Tall Ship Festival, featuring 16 vessels — as well as artisans and entertainers — in a three-day extravaganza also at Leicht Park. Nearly 60,000 folks visited downtown Green Bay for the event celebrating Green Bay's nautical history.

No longer a forgotten eyesore, the Mighty Fox was enjoying a resurgence in its own popularity — often, now, the focal point of activities — while cleanup efforts continued. Bay Beach would also enjoy some renewed attention when the legendary Zippin Pippin rollercoaster — along with other rides — was added at the park in 2010. In 2018, the hubbub revolves around public swimming returning to Bay Beach in the near future.

Other projects have followed suit including the Watermark and River Center projects and events drawing visitors to downtown Titletown have continued to grow in number and volume.

A full-slate of weekly events includes Tuesday's “Live on Main" at Whitney Park, the city's oldest; Wednesday's “Dine on the Deck" on the CityDeck; Thursday's “Summer in the Park" at Jackson Square and “Leicht at Nite" at Leicht Park; and Friday's “Friday on the Fox" also on the CityDeck.

Farmers Markets on both sides of the river celebrate the area's abundance — not only of produce, but quality entertainment and fellowship — as folks flood South Washington and Broadway Streets on the city's east and west sides on Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings respectively.

Downtown development continues at a sometimes-frenetic, sometimes-frustrating pace. Even the fiasco that is the Hotel Northland renovation seems to be back on track. Schreiber Foods' relocation there and recent announcements of future plans by businesses such as BreakThrough Fuels, seem to have the downtown back on firm footing. The Meyer Theater represents the current heartthrob with more on the horizon for downtown entertainment.

Housing in the downtown area is also foremost on city planner's minds. As Downtown Green Bay, Inc. puts it, there's a “wide range of options ... available for those who wish to live near this exciting part of Green Bay." The Metreau Apartments, CityDeck Landing, Riverside Place Apartments, Rivers Edge Apartments, Flats on the Fox and Riverfront Loft Condos all have one thing in common: They are all situated on the river.

Full-Circle

It was the Mighty Fox River that drew the first people to the area 9000 years ago … that brought Europeans here 300 years ago … that ushered in an era of industrialization the equal of anywhere else in the world. It was the Mighty Fox River and the related human activities in the area that made Green Bay world-famous.

Despite its overuse to near-exhaustion, the Mighty Fox flows on. Rather than look away, a resurging city has turned to embrace its famous waterway once again and the Mighty Fox is answering the call.


Spring finds author, educator, historian, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson working with various entities and the Green Bay Theatre Company to convert the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings into an arts and performance facility. Your input on this project is welcome at gbtheatrecompany@aol.com.

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