GREEN BAY – From the perspective of many people in Green Bay’s quiet Schmitt Park Neighborhood, the site of the former Brown County Mental Health Center works well in its present form.
It’s green space, mostly, where residents of nearby townhouses and apartments can take a quiet stroll on land where the center stood for decades. Veterans’ Manor — modern rental housing for people getting their lives back on track after serving in the military — opened on the site a few years back, but has done little to change traffic or noise levels along St. Anthony Drive, the neighborhood’s main drag.
A number of local government, business and higher-education leaders, though, see the site as a cornerstone of the county’s economic future, and a key to ensuring that greater Green Bay remains more boom town than ghost town.
County Executive Troy Streckenbach says the site is the best place to build an “incubator” for what he and leaders at nearby University of Wisconsin-Green Bay envision as the home of a collaborative effort to interest students who enjoy science, math or technology to go to college locally, then put that education to work at local businesses.
“We need to create a pipeline where engineers that are in demand … (meet) here, where higher education and young thinking intersects,” he told Schmitt Park residents in December. “We need to give high-tech businesses another reason to locate here, to stay here. Businesses want to be near universities, so we’re working to leverage the UWGB connection.”
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Leaders are beginning to add details to the concept, for which they’ve recently been marshaling business, university and government support. The latest is that they plan to build a 55,000-square-foot building on the Mental Health Center site.
The STEM Center — science, technology, engineering, math — would be designed in 2017 and built by mid-2019. The county has budgeted $800,000 for its design.
In a perfect world, backers say, the center would be a place where UWGB, the Green Bay School District, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and others would collaborate. Among the project’s goals: Interest youngsters in STEM fields, help train educators, provide space for research and product development, and prepare college students so they could be hired into local engineering jobs.
The last item holds particular appeal for area employers.
“Local mechanical and electrical engineers are difficult to find, especially those (who) have consumer electronics experience,” said David Troup, chairman of Xensr, a Green Bay electronics firm that makes global-positioning devices for people who participate in extreme sports. Troup, whose firm is looking to the west coast to hire engineers, said “setting the roots for a local engineering program would be a fantastic economic-development tool” for the Green Bay area.
Leaders say as many as 80 percent of graduates would stay in the region, so long as jobs are here.
Before that can happen, though, Streckenbach, UWGB Chancellor Gary Miller and supporters in the local business community will need to address several significant issues. Here are the major puzzle pieces to be fitted into place if the effort is to succeed.
Got $5 million?
That’s how much the county is asking the state to pony up in the biennial budget that Gov. Scott Walker will propose in early 2017. If the state says yes, Streckenbach will likely ask the county board in late 2017 to allow him to borrow an equal amount — though the request would likely meet with resistance from some members of the board who privately have termed the STEM idea as “pie in the sky.”
More than 50 current or former presidents and chief executives of major area businesses signed a letter asking Walker for funding. The organizations include businesses Cellcom, Schreiber Foods Inc., Green Bay Packaging, We Energies, two major health care groups and the Green Bay Packers.
They’ll learn in a month or two if that part of the effort is successful.
While government will be asked to contribute a total of $10 million to the cost of the building, the proposed total cost is $15 million. Business and industry will be asked to provide the rest.
Streckenbach said the fact that dozens of businesses have expressed support for the project leaves him confident the money can be raised.
Wisconsin businesses have shown a willingness to support STEM projects. The University of Wisconsin-Marshfield/Wood County received $3.7 million of the cost of its $5.7 million STEM center via donations from the business community, said Keith Montgomery, regional executive officer for Marshfield and three other campuses.
“There was a lot of interest in this in the Marshfield and Wausau business communities, he said. “We have a number of metal manufacturing concerns, fabricators, mid-sized firms that need engineers.”
Wood County and Marshfield each contributed $1 million toward the 20,000-square-foot building, which will house four science labs. No state funds were used in the $5.7 million project.
To produce engineers, a college needs an engineering track. UWGB has an engineering-technology program, but does not offer a mechanical engineering degree. The school plans to ask the state for permission to change that.
While approval is by no means a sure thing, Streckenbach said he is optimistic, pointing out that the benefits of an engineering program would extend beyond Brown County.
“UW-Green Bay enthusiastically supports the STEM Innovation Center,” said Janet Bonkowski, UWGB’s director of marketing and communications. “It makes great sense for us to collaborate with Brown County on this, working together to meet the region’s growing need for engineering talent.”
It’s up to the state to determine if that partnership will include a full-fledged engineering program.
The fact that there’s a STEM project under way in Marshfield and an $80 million STEM building opened in 2015 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee might not help Brown County’s proposal.
Would the state be willing to help fund a project that might be perceived as competing for students with other campuses within the UW system? Might lawmakers be reluctant to fund one project, fearing it might create pressure to increase funding for projects at other Wisconsin colleges?
Streckenbach insists that’s not an issue.
“This is not just a project that benefits Brown County; it benefits the entire region,” he said. “What’s good for Brown County is good for the counties around us.” Because the project would be based in Wisconsin’s fourth largest county and third largest city, he said, state lawmakers would have incentive to fund the project.
Wisconsin also has engineering programs at campuses as large as its flagship university in Madison, and at smaller schools like UW-Platteville. Conceivably, officials from those schools — and perhaps lawmakers in whose districts they sit — would resist a program that could create competition for engineering students.
Streckenbach and county Planning Director Chuck Lamine in December discussed the project with roughly 15 residents of Schmitt Park, the neighborhood surrounding the STEM site.
Residents had several concerns: Where, exactly, would the building go? Have you considered other sites? Could it be built away from the road? What impact would it have on traffic? Was the eventual intent to have a manufacturing facility on the site? Could neighbors have input on the building’s exterior appearance?
“My biggest concern is it would be close to a residential area; we’ve got some townhouses right there,” said neighborhood association President Kathy Jerry. “And traffic is already an issue for us.”
The proposed site is just east of a townhouse complex off Mt. Mary Drive, and across the street from the Moraine Ridge Senior Living facility and an apartment complex
“When we get done with this, you’re going to see something that fits with the neighborhood,” Lamine said. “We don’t build junk … and it’s not our intention to have smokestacks here.”
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» Students as young as kindergartners who have an interest in science and/or math could learn from experts — maybe professors, maybe local engineers, maybe both — then visit another part of the building to see those concepts in action. What better way to learn about robots, for example, than to watch a robotic arm in action, explained by the designer, builder or operator?
» Local teachers could receive training through the Einstein Project, a nonprofit that provides resources to educate students in STEM subjects.
» Grant money would flow. Research at STEM centers within the UW System have proven they can attract grant money; $11.5 million in grants flowed into projects based out of a five-story STEM building at UW-Milwaukee in 2015, the school says.
» UWGB professors working in the building could use grant money to turn ideas into things to be patented and sold. An industrial wrench created in the STEM program at UW-Milwaukee has been licenced to Snap-On, a Kenosha toolmaker. The company believes the new design will reduce shoulder, hand and back injuries in gas-meter technicians because it requires less movement by the user.
» Students could do some of the work needed for a high-demand degree through a mechanical-engineering program proposed for UWGB.
» Local businesses in need of engineers could draw from a crop of locally-grown graduates with interests in and connections to northeastern Wisconsin, rather than recruiting from outside the area amid competition from California’s Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle.