Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents downtown Milwaukee, says he's not comfortable with the pace that Wisconsin Center District officials have set to approve financing of the planned expansion to the convention center, which could cost as much as $425 million.
In response, he has crafted a proposal that would reverse a previous Common Council approval related to the project.
On Friday, the WCD Board of Directors are scheduled to hear key details on the expansion, such as architectural design and the proposed financing model. Although the specific cost estimate won't be revealed until March 16, WCD confirmed the project could cost up to $425 million. That figure was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday.
Previous estimates put the cost around $275 million, and Wisconsin lawmakers last year passed legislation for the state to back up to $300 million in WCD borrowing.
Bauman, who also sits on the WCD Board, noted in an email that the board is expected to vote on the financing plan when it meets in early April. He said this is not enough time given both the expected price tag and the complexity of the financing plan.
"I do not think a final vote less than 30 days later (after getting details in the financing plan) is reasonable," he wrote. "Perhaps board members can become sufficiently informed but there is also the general public and other units of governments to be considered."
Bauman has drafted a proposal aimed at slowing down this process. The resolution, which is scheduled to be taken up on Tuesday by the Common Council, would rescind a previous city approval related to the financing plan.
Although it was unclear on Monday how much support the resolution had, the city's website listed at least one co-sponsor, Alderman Michael Murphy. A Common Council spokesman said the proposal carries a 10-vote threshold.
When asked for comment on Bauman's proposal, WCD leaders noted that board members have been kept up to date throughout the entire planning process.
"The WCD Board has been informed and engaged with the progress of the Wisconsin Center expansion project," Jim Kanter, WCD Board chairman, said in a statement provided by a spokesperson. "We are committed to making fact-based, strategic business decisions that are in the best interest of the city, the region, and the state. The board is one of the most engaged I’ve ever seen, and I am proud of the work that we are doing to make an impact in our area."
Bauman noted that most of the expansion talk leading up to this point has been merely conceptual and did not include specific project costs or financing plans.
He also compared the proposed expansion to other major projects such as Fiserv Forum ($525 million, with a $250 million public contribution) and The Hop streetcar ($128 million). Bauman said the financing of those projects were debated for much longer than a month.
Marty Brooks, president and chief executive officer of WCD, noted the not-to-exceed figure is based on design work performed by the project team, and factors in soft costs and programming requirements not considered in earlier estimates.
"This figure is used in the funding modeling to show that the WCD can expand the convention center to be competitive while also meeting other financial goals that position WCD for long-term future success," he said in a statement.
Officials have for some time mulled an expansion of the convention center. After years of little more than discussion and studies, the project was seemingly put on the fast track after state lawmakers passed legislation last summer that backed up to $300 million in bonding from WCD. This means the state would appropriate money toward debt-service payments toward the bonding if the district was unable to pay them back.
WCD also recently hired a design team and construction-management team for the project.
Specific expansion details still haven't been revealed. However, consultants have previously recommended the exhibit hall space be expanded to 300,000 square feet, the meeting space to be doubled and the ballroom space to be expanded by up to 20,000 square feet. The convention center, built in 1998, is 266,000 square feet, with about 189,000 square feet of exhibit space.