Gimbel says theater market isn’t overcrowded

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Gimbel says theater market isn’t overcrowded

The Wisconsin Center District has been at the center of controversy since the Milwaukee Theatre’s $32 million construction budget ended with a $41.2 million invoice and the public questioned the theater’s necessity and viability.
In addition to the Milwaukee Theatre, the Wisconsin Center District operates the U.S. Cellular Arena and the Midwest Airlines Center.
Franklyn Gimbel, Wisconsin Center District chairman, recently discussed the opening of the theater and the future of the district with Small Business Times reporter Elizabeth Geldermann. The following are excerpts from the interview.

SBT: The Milwaukee Theatre is up and running, and the construction turned out beautifully. After opening night and some minor mishaps, has business been running smoothly?
Gimbel: Well, it is going absolutely fantastic. We have sold about 60,000 tickets for the Rockettes show (of 80,000 tickets available). We have sold out Bill Cosby and Josh Groban. Sting is looking like it is going to be a sellout. So our response from the community seems to be really great. And we are doing well on our Broadway series. These experiences prove that very, very attractive performers are interested in our theater in Milwaukee, and the fans are happy to come to our theater to see these performers.

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SBT: At the end of the day, why was there a cost overrun for the construction of the Milwaukee Theatre?
Gimbel: Because there were some defects in the foundations on the north end of the building, and while we knew that we had some problems, we didn’t know the depth of the problems. They ran into an area underground that they couldn’t penetrate with normal means, and we had to do it with extraordinary means. And then we had to replace the whole rear end of the building because the stage that we put in wouldn’t fit into the building as it was configured, so that was something that we didn’t realize at the time.

SBT: The Wisconsin Center District Board has made a request to the city to waive various municipal fees. If approved, how much money would the exemption save the Wisconsin Center District over the course of the year?
Gimbel: You know, I really don’t know that. I don’t know that. I mean, it is not a big deal. You are talking about hundreds of dollars, not thousands of dollars. We’ve got city members on the board who are protective of our interests.

SBT: Some theatergoers and theater operators are concerned that the market is over-saturated. Milwaukee already has the Riverside Theatre, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the Potawatomi Northern Lights, the Rave, and the Pabst Theater. We also have the Bradley Center and the U.S. Cellular Arena. Did this market need another theater?
Gimbel: The answer is yes. Because we fill a niche. The Marcus Performing Arts Center has a pretty full schedule all year because it is home to the symphony, it is home to the opera; it is home to the ballet. And those groups use a great many nights and particularly weekend nights. The Riverside is about half our size, and they haven’t had the same type of shows that we have, the quality of shows that have the broad appeal that our shows have had. And also, our theater is going to be used very significantly to attract conventions to Milwaukee, and it gives us something that our peer cities, those are the cities we compete with for association convention meeting business, an edge because they don’t have a similar theater connected to their buildings. So I don’t believe the market is saturated, and I don’t believe that we are going to hurt anybody.

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SBT: With regards to the use of the theater for conventions, will there need to be a skywalk or a tunnel to interconnect the convention center with the theater and arena? Is this part of Phase 3 of the Midwest Airlines Center expansion?
Gimbel: When Phase 3 is built, we will connect the convention center to the theater and the U.S. Cellular Arena with an underground passageway. And that is part of the plan that we have already reviewed.

SBT: Is that a part of Phase 3 or is that Phase 3?
Gimbel: Phase 3 would be to build a new convention center — an extension of the convention center, all the way to Kilbourn Avenue, and it would have underground parking, and it would have additional exhibition space, additional ballroom space and additional meeting space.

SBT: Annual attendance has been declining in recent years at the conventions held in Midwest Airlines. Why is that?
Gimbel: The most significant reason is that after 9-11, 2001, most businesses reviewed their travel policies and many businesses either cancelled or scaled down their meetings away from their business headquarters, because of fear of flying. That is the major reason. Now people are coming away from that, and we’re seeing an increased interest in having meetings and permitting people to travel. It was a combination of 9-11 and a turndown of the American business economy.

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SBT: What would you say is the status of Phase 3 and how far along are you in discussion?
Gimbel: Phase 3 would essentially take the Wisconsin Avenue facade, what it looks like, and we would duplicate that on Kilbourn Avenue. And we would take the convention center right to the sidewalk on Kilbourn Avenue, where there is now a surface parking lot there. That would be filled with a building that looks much like what’s there now.
We would have to have some assistance from the state legislature, and we would have to get authority to raise our food and beverage tax to do that. And because of the tight fiscal situation in state government and local government, we have put this project on hold. We would have to go to the state legislature and get them to increase our taxing authority.

SBT: In this era of budget cuts and tax freezes, will it happen anytime soon?
Gimbel: Well, I am going to say that my hope and expectation would be that the state legislature would look at this during the year next year, with potentially some action in 2005.

SBT: The U.S. Cellular Arena is now the home of the Milwaukee Wave and the UWM men’s basketball team. How is that going, and will their games be revenue generators for the Wisconsin Center District?
Gimbel: The Wave is, well I think they have played maybe three games there, and we are very optimistic that they are going to do very well at our house and that it will work profitably for both us and them. UWM — if they draw crowds, it will work well for both them and us.

SBT: Your term on the board of the Wisconsin Center District has technically expired. Do you want to be reappointed to the board? Have you spoken to the governor about reappointment?
Gimbel: Both. I do want to be reappointed, and I have spoken with the governor, and I am awaiting his word.

SBT: In the Milwaukee mayoral race, from your point of view, is there one candidate who would best serve the interests of the Wisconsin Center District? If so, why?
Gimbel: Well, I think there are several of the mayor candidates who would well serve the Wisconsin Center District. We have had two of the mayor candidates on our board for the past several years, (Marvin) Pratt and (Thomas) Nardelli, and either one of them would be very supportive of the Convention Center. I think anybody who supports a vibrant downtown would be a good choice, as far as the Wisconsin Center District’s interests are concerned.

SBT: What about the plans to develop a Sheraton Hotel on Fourth Street and Wisconsin Avenue? Why do you think the plans made by Milwaukee Convention Center Hotel LLC, should be double the proposed size?
Gimbel: We are not involved directly in that, but we certainly hope that that real estate will be developed as a hotel property. Anytime you add hotel room inventory to the downtown of a city, you give that city an opportunity to go after larger groups of people. And so anytime we increase the inventory here, it is good for business. We have increased the inventory of downtown hotel rooms by 1,000 rooms since we opened the Midwest Airlines Center. I would prefer to see a 450- or 500-room hotel, but increasing the inventory is a positive step.

SBT: Has there been any progress on the notion of merging the Wisconsin Center District and the Bradley Center?
Gimbel: There is nothing going on currently, but I think that those discussions will be revived in the next 90 days.

SBT: Given the struggles of both the Center District and the Bradley Center, do you think a merger would be a mutual benefit? What would it take to bring about a merger?
Gimbel: Well, I don’t know about struggles, but I do think that a merger has a possibility for benefits for the community. It is going to take an agreement on how to restructure the governance of the two entities, and it is going to take the legislature to approve of that. What would be most helpful would be an increase in the taxing authority of the district so that some of the capital improvement needs could be addressed, which would include Phase 3, and then doing some capital improvement work in the Bradley Center.

Nov. 28, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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