Borrowing plan for proposed Wisconsin Center expansion takes step forward

Project could break ground in 2021

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The potential expansion of downtown Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Center took a step forward Friday, with district officials aiming toward a project groundbreaking of early 2021.

During a meeting on Friday morning, the Wisconsin Center District board of directors unanimously approved a resolution that directs officials to prepare one or more issues of bonds to finance the project, which could total up to $300 million.

The resolution also authorizes president and chief executive Marty Brooks and board chairman Jim Kanter to enter into certain agreements valued up to $1 million on the project. According to the resolution, such contracts would be related to financial services or professional services on the project. Such services could include financial advisers, rating agencies, bond purchasers, feasibility consultants, escrow agents and more. The previous caps on such expenditures was $125,000, and was set in 2015.

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“Today’s vote was critical in keeping the Wisconsin Center expansion project moving forward appropriately,” Brooks said in a statement.

Also during the meeting, Brooks provided the board with an estimated timeline for the convention center expansion.

In the coming months, Brooks said he expects to hire consultants and a third-party owner’s representative on the project.

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“The next step is, as I see it, for us to move the project forward is to engage in an owner’s rep who can really take hold of this project,” Brooks told board members.

He said this firm would coordinate everything that needs to happen for the project to stay on track, from coordinating with utilities to creating requests for proposals for all necessary work.

WCD would then issue RFPs in January or February seeking an architect and construction manager, and those firms would be selected in the spring. In April or May, the board will review and approve the financing package for the project. Bonds will then be issued in May or June, with project design commencing around June or July.

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The district will then present its project plans to the city of Milwaukee for approval, according to the timeline. Assuming approvals are met, crews will break ground in early 2021 and construction would last through the end of 2022.

Assuming all goes according to plan, WCD will host a grand opening of the expanded convention center in early 2023.

Brooks said he has spoken with architects and construction managers about the proposed timeline. They told him it was not overly aggressive.

“We are very sensitive to the fact that timelines are fluid and are subject to market conditions,” Kanter said in a statement. “The purpose of presenting this timeline is to make sure we have a framework on paper which will allow us to be more nimble and ready to adjust when unforeseen variables come into play.”

Kanter is also general manager of MillerCoors.

The district is seeking to expand the convention center in order for it to better compete for events with facilities in similar-sized cities. In 2017, a study found the convention center’s exhibit hall space should be expanded to 300,000 square feet. In addition, the study recommended meeting space be doubled and ballroom space should be expanded by 15,000 to 20,000 feet.

The financing picture became clearer on the proposed expansion earlier this summer due to the passage of the state’s two-year budget. Lawmakers included in the budget a provision that increased by $100 million the state’s existing moral-obligation pledge for new debt issued by WCD. This makes it easier for WCD to put a financing deal together on the proposed expansion project by making it cheaper to borrow money.

In May, the district announced it had hired Morgan Stanley as the lead investment banking firm to help craft a financing plan for the expansion.

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