DNC, state budget provide rosy outlook for Wisconsin Center District

Marty Brooks, CEO of the Wisconsin Center District
Marty Brooks, CEO of the Wisconsin Center District

The first half of the year was largely good news for the Wisconsin Center, says the group that runs the downtown Milwaukee convention facility.

Wisconsin Center District officials said their outlook is positive for the coming months and years, largely due to two separate events: The announcement this spring that Milwaukee would host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, and the recent passage of a state budget that includes a provision making an expansion of the convention center more feasible.

“We’re very encouraged by how things are going this year,” said Marty Brooks, WCD chief executive officer.

Milwaukee found out in March that it had beat out the other finalists, Houston and Miami, to host the DNC. The main DNC events will occur at Fiserv Forum, but convention organizers plan to use WCD facilities as well.

Brooks said now that Milwaukee is under the national spotlight, the convention center has also seen an uptick in interest. For instance, over the course of a week this spring the district hosted nine different site visits from convention planners.

“That kind of activity doesn’t happen very often, so that’s the direct result of the renewed interest in Milwaukee, if not the new interest,” Brooks said.

Another sign of optimism comes from the state’s two-year budget, which was signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers earlier this month. That budget includes an amendment that increases by $100 million the state’s existing moral-obligation pledge for new debt issued by WCD.

This backing is a guarantee by the state to appropriate money toward debt-service payments if the district were ever unable to do so for its bonding. This backing makes it easier for WCD to put a financing deal together on the proposed expansion project by making it cheaper to borrow money.

A consulting firm hired by WCD in 2017 recommended the convention center’s exhibit hall space be expanded to 300,000 square feet, its meeting space be doubled and ballroom space be expanded by 15,000 to 20,000 feet. The expected cost of this expansion is around $250 million to $290 million.

Brooks said he expects WCD to have a financing plan in place for the expansion project by January, pending WCD board approval. Following the selection of an architect and construction contractor, the project could break ground in the fourth quarter of 2020 and be finished in the first quarter of 2023.

An expansion would allow for larger conventions or even multiple events to occur at the same time at the Wisconsin Center.

“Right now, we’re turning down as many conventions as we’re booking,” said Omar Shaikh, co-owner and president of SURG Restaurant Group LLC and a member of WCD’s board of directors.

Beyond the direct benefits to the convention center itself, an expanded space also provides more clarity for other potential developments in the immediate area, Shaikh said. For example, the Milwaukee Bucks have been waiting to see what happens with the Wisconsin Center, as it might influence what is built on the former Bradley Center site, he said.

The city is also seeking proposals for the redevelopment of a surface parking lot at the corner of Vel R. Phillips and West Wisconsin avenues, across the street from the Wisconsin Center. Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development, said an expanded convention center “definitely” adds confidence for developers eyeing the city-owned site across the street. At the same time, the city has plans to extend the Hop streetcar and construct a $5 million public plaza there, although those plans are still awaiting Common Council approval.

“I think it’s a real renaissance on West Wisconsin Avenue right now,” Marcoux said. “I think obviously having the convention center expanded adds to that renaissance.”

Marcoux said the fact that Milwaukee is hosting the DNC also lends credibility to the idea the convention center should be expanded. He said some have questioned whether an expansion would actually result in more convention activity.

“It just demonstrates to folks that if we can handle the DNC, think of what else we could handle with the expanded capacity in the convention center,” he said.

Shaikh said an expanded convention center would drive more people and organizations to visit Milwaukee, which means more money is being spent in the area. It also would ideally lead to more people choosing to live in the city.

The Wisconsin Center District won’t start promising the expanded square footage to convention organizers until detailed plans are in place and district officials have a more solidified expected completion date, Brooks said. Conventions are typically booked at least 18 months in advance.

“We could start booking business in the entire (expanded) building for the first quarter of 2023 as soon as we have shovels in the ground and have an estimated completion date,” he said.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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