Common Council expected to review Wisconsin Center expansion in early 2020

Wisconsin Center District Board could give final approval for project bonding in April

Wisconsin Center
The Wisconsin Center

Last updated on March 17th, 2020 at 01:32 pm

The long-planned expansion of the Wisconsin Center has recently taken major steps forward, and it is set to reach even more development milestones in the first few months of 2020.

But before construction crews can begin actually moving dirt, various governmental bodies will need to sign off on certain aspects the project, primarily related to its financing.

Approvals will come from the Milwaukee Common Council, two Evers Administration officials and the Wisconsin Center District, the entity that oversees the convention center and other downtown event venues.

One alderman said the approval on the city’s end should be “totally routine” and likely require no discussion.

The first set of approvals pertains to the state’s financial backing of new bonding to be issued by WCD. The Wisconsin Legislature included a $100 million extension to the state’s existing moral obligation pledge to WCD bonding as part of its two-year budget plan passed this year. This pledge means the state would make debt service payments on the bonding if not enough dedicated tax revenues were available to make the payments.

The state moral obligation makes it cheaper for the WCD to borrow money, and by extension makes it easier to put together a financing deal on the expansion.

But for WCD to use that moral obligation, it must prove the project meets certain requirements as outlined by state law. Specifically, the city of Milwaukee, the sponsoring municipality, must certify that these requirements would be met.

John Mehan, managing director at R.W. Baird & Co. Inc., which is helping WCD put together its financing on the project, outlined those conditions during a WCD Board of Directors meeting on Thursday. They require that the expansion project:

  • Includes an exposition hall of at least 100,000 square feet
  • Attracts at least 50,000 out-of-state visitors annually
  • Stimulates at least $6.5 billion in total spending over a 30-year period
  • Generates at least $150 million of incremental state income, franchise and sales tax revenue over 30 years
  • Supports at least 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs

WCD hired a consultant, Westbury, New York-based HVS, to analyze whether the project would meet the criteria. The firm determined all criteria would be met or exceeded, and included those in a spending and fiscal impact analysis dated Dec. 10.

Mehan said the Common Council is expected in January or February to take up a resolution accepting the findings from HVS. After the resolution is approved, it would then head to the Wisconsin secretaries of administration and revenue. They would have 30 days to either accept or reject the findings.

“At this point, things are moving along in a deliberate manner, and we are hopeful and expect a positive outcome,” Mehan said of the approvals.

Marty Brooks, WCD president and chief executive officer, added that district officials have already discussed the resolution with Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, Alderman Robert Bauman and Alderwoman Milele Coggs. All three are members of the WCD Board.

“It’s totally routine,” Bauman said of the pending approval. “All we’re doing is saying, ‘Yes, the project looks good to us.’ ”

WCD Board members will also need to approve the financing package to issue the bonds. A WCD spokeswoman said that vote will likely take place at the board’s April meeting. The district anticipates the bonding to then be issued in May or June.

The project team will be busy with planning and pre-development work in the meantime.

WCD named the project design team on Thursday, which consists of Atlanta-based tvsdesign and Milwaukee-based Eppstein Uhen Architects.

A construction manager will be selected next. Responses to an invitation to bid were due today, and in-person interviews are scheduled to take place the week of Jan. 6. A construction manager will then likely be named the following week.

WCD expects to have a cost analysis and project budget put together by early March.

A groundbreaking is slated for spring 2021.

“We are definitely moving,” Bauman said. “The hiring of the design team is a big deal, and that will certainly fold into the construction manager process. … Once you have that in place, it’s just a matter of getting the financing in place and they’re conceivably ready to go.”

The HVS analysis specifically found the expanded Wisconsin Center would support more than 300,000 square feet of exhibition space, would attract 280,000 overnight visitors, generate more than $12.6 billion in spending over 30 years, generate about $487 million in annual fiscal impacts to the state over 30 years, and support approximately 2,300 full-time equivalent jobs statewide.

HVS notes in its analysis that even if only 20% of overnight visitors were from out of state, it would still exceed the required 50,000 out-of-state visitors requirement.

Further, the jobs number includes direct, indirect and induced jobs. Not all positions would be full time, but all full-time and part-time jobs added together would come out as equal to 2,300 full-time jobs.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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