Inside Slant: Packers cashing in at Lambeau

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There was a time -- oh, about two years ago -- when your arrival in this football town was not apparent until the "Lombardi Ave." sign materialized off Highway 41. These days, visitors to Green Bay are greeted by an NFL-made skyline and a vast tract that could soon host an entertainment and shopping district matched only by the nation's largest cities.

Now more than ever, the Packers really are Green Bay. Little known outside of this region, the franchise has bought up land, razed nearby houses and expanded its stadium more than 20 stories into the sky as part of what can only be described as massive physical growth. At a time when it's fair to wonder how the NFL could get any bigger, one of its oldest franchises will bring you the "Titletown District."

"I think it makes a lot of sense -- and especially for us," Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said. "It's all about making Green Bay and Lambeau Field even more of a destination than it already is."

The Packers' land acquisition has left them with 62 acres of local holdings, according to tax documents reviewed by the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Initial signs of a shopping district emerged last summer, when Cabela's opened one of its hunting/fishing/camping stores on Packers-owned land near the corner of Lombardi and Highway 41. The Packers, in fact, own or operate on more than a linear mile of land from Cabela's to the Don Hutson Center on the east side of the stadium. This spring, they razed 16 nearby houses to create a 400-spot parking lot, opened a 21,500-square foot pro shop -- more than double the size of its predecessor -- and have finalized plans to bulldoze a nearby Kmart for additional parking.

Murphy has made three visits to Patriot Place in Foxborough, Massachusetts, a 1.3 million square-foot multipurpose commercial district adjacent to Gillette Stadium and owned by the Kraft Group, which also owns the New England Patriots. Patriot Place includes a Renaissance hotel, 14 restaurants and dozens of shops; Murphy won't reveal specific plans for the Titletown District, but he said there is opportunity for similar development.

"We're studying it and looking at a lot of different options," he said. "I do think Cabela's was a very good step, in terms of bringing more people into the area. You look at the area between Cabela's and the stadium, and there is potential for things that could have a pretty significant long-term impact on the community."

Along the way, it could elevate the Packers' lofty economic stature within the industry. Last year, the Packers generated the ninth-highest total of local revenue ($136.4 million) in the NFL -- a notable achievement considering the size of their market, their lack of naming rights at Lambeau and their average-priced tickets (No. 17 in the NFL). Meanwhile, their reserve fund -- designed to operate the franchise for one year if all revenues were lost -- reached $284 million this spring.

The Packers, in short, already are one of the NFL's economic powerhouses. Their public ownership means they have no private owner to enrich, so revenues are thrust back into the franchise. Nowhere is that more physically evident than at Lambeau, which is wrapping up its third expansion in 11 years. It's now a monstrous 80,735-seat structure covering 2.1 million square feet.

The addition to the south end zone extends 232 feet into the air -- taller than a 21-story building. On a clear night, it can be seen for miles above the streets and rooftops of Green Bay. It's such an anomaly relative to its surroundings that the Federal Aviation Administration ordered warning lights installed at its zenith to alert aircraft approaching Austin Straubel Airport.

This summer, visitors will notice an expansion of the Packers' football facilities into the southeast parking lot, a project that gave players a new weight room, cafeteria and rehabilitation center. Players now park in an underground lot accessible via tunnel.

Meanwhile, Murphy has signaled a notable philosophical change. The Lambeau Atrium -- which now houses the pro shop, Curly's restaurant and eventually an expanded Packers Hall of Fame -- is now considered part of the commercial district rather than simply a corner of the stadium. All told, the Packers have initiated a massive juxtaposition of cityscape amid the sleepy neighborhood they have long inhabited.

This type of multiuse district won't work for every team in the NFL, especially those in landlocked downtown stadiums. But the league rules give teams every reason to explore it because the revenues don't have to be shared among the 31 other teams. How can the NFL get bigger? The seed is in embryo form here in Green Bay. The Packers helped build the golden age of football, and now they're cashing in.