Members of the Milwaukee Common Council said they need some questions answered on the proposed expansion of the Wisconsin Center, or they could reverse their prior endorsement of the project.
Aldermen in February approved what had been called a "totally routine"
resolution that certified the use of state financial backing on the up-to $425 million expansion
. The Wisconsin Center District, which owns the convention center and other downtown venues, would take on debt to pay for the project.
Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents downtown and sits on the WCD Board of Directors, introduced a resolution during Tuesday's Common Council meeting to rescind this approval. Council members sent the resolution to the committee level so they could discuss the project further and get answers to some of their questions and concerns.
Those concerns range from the project's quick approval timeline, to the amount of investment happening downtown relative to other city neighborhoods, to contracting requirements with small and minority-owned businesses.
WCD said it was looking forward to working with the Common Council on the matter.
“We are excited about what the expanded convention center will bring to Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin,” said Marty Brooks, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Center District. “We look forward to continuing our conversations with members of the Milwaukee Common Council in a forthright and transparent manner.”
Bauman noted the massive project was on the fast-track to a final approval in early April. He said other huge projects, such as the $524 million Fiserv Forum that received $250 million in public funding, were subject to a much lengthier review process and more public scrutiny.
Bauman also posited that the WCD seems to be doing well enough financially that it could afford to share some of its tax revenue with the city. He noted that among the taxes WCD collects is a citywide 7% hotel room tax. Milwaukee used to get one-third of this revenue until WCD was created in 1994.
He said that he was briefed in mid-February on the WCD financing plan for the expansion project. In that briefing, he learned that WCD could in theory handle up to $523 million in project costs, though the expansion cost would not exceed $425 million.
"If these taxes are generating that much revenue that they can afford this on top of debt they already have, I said, 'Maybe they could provide a little revenue to the city, give us a piece back,'" Bauman said.
He said the tax generated $15 million in revenue in 2019. With a $5 million share, the city could have avoided cuts to its police force, rebuilt five miles of city streets, or filled tens of thousands of potholes, he said.
"We need that money back, and if they have that capacity ... they can give us a third of that tax back," he said.
Alderman Michael Murphy echoed Bauman's concerns over the approval timeline, and added that the April 7 election will occur just days after the WCD Board is scheduled to give a final project approval. The board could get as many as seven new members soon, including a new mayor of Wauwatosa, Milwaukee city comptroller, and four new appointees by the incoming Milwaukee County executive.
Alderwoman Milele Coggs, who is also a WCD Board member, said many residents feel there is too much attention being paid by the city to its downtown versus other neighborhoods. By hearing about the project further in a public setting, those issues could be added to the discussion.
"To too many residents, it often feels like too much is being given to downtown and not enough is being invested in our neighborhoods," she said.
Alderman Russell Stamper said he wanted guarantees on workforce development and inclusion goals, especially in relation to the construction work.
Lawmakers last year passed legislation that allows the state to back up to $300 million borrowed by the Wisconsin Center District. This means that lawmakers would appropriate money toward debt-service payments if the district was itself unable to pay them back.
This so-called moral obligation pledge has been used to back financing for other projects in the state, such as the construction of Miller Park.
As the sponsoring municipality, the city of Milwaukee had to approve the use of the moral obligation on the convention center expansion. The approval signified the project would meet a series of requirements, including that the expanded center would attract at least 50,000 out-of-state visitors annually and support at least 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs, among other things.