Construction to begin on Waukesha County’s largest conference center this fall

Corporate Event Planning


One of the largest new corporate event centers in the works in southeastern Wisconsin is Brookfield’s conference center and hotel.

The $32 million project includes a 54,000-square-foot conference center and a 168-room Hilton Garden Inn hotel linked by a glass walkway.

Inside, the conference center will include an 18,000-square-foot main ballroom that can be subdivided into two or three rooms, a 6,000-square-foot junior ballroom that can also be subdivided, and a 9,000-square-foot outdoor terrace.

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“We have designed this so it can be as flexible as humanly possible,” said Nancy Justman, president and chief executive officer of Visit Brookfield.

The hotel and conference center will be built at the former Sears Auto Center site, just south of Brookfield Square mall.

The City of Brookfield acquired a 9.3-acre site from an affiliate of Chattanooga, Tennessee-based CBL Properties, the owner of Brookfield Square, in a deed in lieu of condemnation action. The city sold 2.5 acres of the project site to Middleton-based hotel developer North Central Group Inc., which was selected by the city in October 2017 to own and operate the Hilton Garden Inn, which will be built adjacent to the city-owned conference center.

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Construction on the conference center is expected to begin in October and it should be open by early 2020, said Dan Ertl, director of community development for the City of Brookfield.

The city is providing the funding for the conference center portion of the development, a total of $24 million, with a combination of tax increment financing, hotel room taxes and possibly a naming rights sponsor, Ertl said. The hotel portion of the project is being funded by North Central Group.

The hotel will open in conjunction with the conference center, said Andy Inman, vice president of development for North Central Group.

Justman anticipates the hotel and conference center will draw some guests from throughout the Midwest, with many coming from across the state for corporate business, banquets and weddings.

“We are positioned directly between Milwaukee and Madison,” she said. “And we have the perfect opportunity to go as far north as Green Bay and as far south as Kenosha.”

Other cities in the region have been considering plans to build or expand meeting venues.

The City of Racine discussed plans for a $55 million, 208,000-square-foot event center with an adjoining 150-room hotel along Lake Michigan for more than a year. The three-story, 3,500-seat event center would have hosted a minor league hockey team and up to 175 events per year.  But the project ultimately died early this year when the Racine Common Council did not override Mayor Cory Mason’s veto to fund the project.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Center District has been discussing plans to expand the downtown Milwaukee convention center for several years. However, the district does not have a financing plan for the project, estimated to cost $247 million to $277 million.

Inman said market studies conducted before the Brookfield conference center was approved showed a strong demand for event and meeting space in the west Milwaukee submarket.

“Visitors will come from the Midwest and from across the state,” Inman said. “Even now, they are looking for a type of different venue.”

Greg Hanis, a hotel industry analyst and president of New Berlin-based Hospitality Marketers International Inc., said Brookfield has always been a good secondary conference and convention center market in the metro area.

“Downtown Milwaukee is the primary convention area, but not all groups want to bring their attendees downtown because of parking or perceived crime or traffic problems,” Hanis said. “The suburban markets are often less costly than the Pfister, Hyatt and other downtown hotels.”

Hanis’ company has done market studies on convention centers in the south and north suburbs and found there is not as much of a need for them.

“Brookfield has I-94, which leads directly to Madison, Racine and Kenosha and easily to the Fox Cities,” Hanis said. “It is a very central location.”

Brookfield Square

Before starting his own company, Hanis was the director of sales and marketing for the Marriott Hotel in Brookfield, which is now the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel at 375 S. Moorland Road.

Lodging competition in Brookfield has always been with the Milwaukee hotels and with Country Springs Hotel in Waukesha, which was recently renamed the Ingleside Hotel, Hanis said.

“Brookfield still had the advantage because of Brookfield Square,” Hanis said. “With the shopping and proximity to movies and restaurants, it was the whole nine yards. You could easily sell it to a group who wanted to come to suburban Milwaukee. Coming from northern Wisconsin with a spouse, Brookfield is a very attractive location.”

Ertl believes the transformation happening at Brookfield Square will give guests a complete amenity package when they visit the conference center.

Over the next several months, the former Sears department store will be demolished and replaced with a Marcus Theatres BistroPlex; WhirlyBall, which is a hybrid restaurant and entertainment center; and several restaurants, including Uncle Julio’s and Outback Steakhouse.

“The amenity package is unparalleled to anything I am aware of in the region,” Ertl said. “On top of that, we will offer free parking, without the hassle of a parking structure.”

The changes at Brookfield Square are expected to open concurrent to the conference center and hotel’s opening in early 2020.

Stacey Keating, a spokeswoman for CBL Properties, said the company believes the hotel and conference center is a great use of the former Sears Auto Center parcel.

“Our goal is to evolve Brookfield Square into more of a mixed-use property,” Keating said. “This will create additional density and traffic. Anything that gives people more reasons to visit and stay for a longer time is mutually beneficial.”   

Early ideas

Plans were first unveiled to build a conference center in March 2016, although city officials and Visit Brookfield had been working on the project for more than two years.

At the time, the price was between $9 million and $12 million and the site was going to be at The Corridor, a mixed-use development between I-94 and West Bluemound Road, west of Calhoun Road.

The Corridor site was eventually dropped when it became clear there was not enough space for parking.  The city has said from the beginning it wants to have between 400 and 600 parking spaces and would like to avoid having a parking deck.

Coralville, Iowa-based Hawkeye Hotels later purchased 5 acres of land in The Corridor from Deer Creek Development Partners LLC, an affiliate of Milwaukee-based development firm Irgens Partners LLC.

The company is building a Holiday Inn Express & Suites and a Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in the development. The hotels will have 132 and 137 rooms, respectively, and share a parking lot.

“We’ve explored a lot of options about where this could go and different operating models,” Justman said. “We’ve dotted our I’s and crossed our T’s and feel we learned a lot about what guests are looking for and what they need.”

The now $32 million hotel and conference project will be paid for in part with funding from hotel room taxes and tax incremental financing district funds, Ertl said.

Other hotels are within close proximity to the Hilton Garden Inn site, including the Sheraton, a Best Western, a Country Inn & Suites by Radisson and an Embassy Suites by Hilton.

Justman said the additional rooms from those hotels, which total 1,000, will allow for even larger events at the conference center that require overflow space.

Inman does not mind the competition.

“We have worked with Visit Brookfield and this is not just to benefit one property,” Inman said. “The conference center really will be an economic benefit throughout Brookfield.”

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