Hotels expanding, renovating

Hotels responding with more rooms, innovations, new sites
When it was first proposed, one of the initial objections to putting the $175 million Midwest Express Center downtown was that Milwaukee simply did not have enough hotel space to accommodate large conventions. Supporters believed that once the state-of-the-art convention center was built, hotel rooms would follow.
It looks like those officials were right.
As the city awaits the grand opening of the new convention center, it seems there is a new hotel development being announced every other week. The opening of the Midwest Express Center has revitalized the downtown hotel industry.
There is no doubt of the convention center’s impact on downtown Milwaukee. Renovations of nearly all the established hotels have either been planned or completed. Whether it’s the elaborate $30 million restoration of the Milwaukee Hilton, formerly the Marc Plaza, or the renovations of the Hotel Wisconsin and the Hyatt, downtown hotels are preening for the anticipated rush of conventioners and tourists.
The Marcus Corp., which owns the Hilton, is also continuing with its plans to add an additional 250 rooms to the Hilton, bringing its capacity up to 750 rooms, according to Dan McCarthy, a City of Milwaukee Urban Development coordinator. The Hilton will be attached to the the convention center through a yet to be constructed skywalk.
The hotel boom is coming from conversion of old office space, as well. The new Hotel Metro, on the southeast corner of East Mason and North Milwaukee streets, is the first of several new hotels to take existing, commercial space and convert it into hotel rooms. The Metro is on the site of the old Blunt Ellis & Loewi office building, and upon completion later this summer, will have 65 extended-stay hotel suites.
The former office space of the Straus Building was recently converted into the Inn Towne Best Western at 238 W. Wisconsin Ave. Harlan Sanders led a group of investors in the Straus conversion and also heads a group of investors which plans to renovate the majority of floors in the former Woolworth building in the Grand Avenue Mall.
Office space on the third, fourth, fifth and sixth floors of the Woolworth building would be converted into 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments. The apartments’ target audience will be people living in Milwaukee on temporary assignments.
The conversions of the formerly vacant office space are beneficial to Milwaukee’s development for two reasons, according to McCarthy. It not only increases the available hotel space in the downtown area, but it takes former Class B office space off of the market, thereby improving office occupancy percentages.
The Woolworth conversion also adds to the list of extended-stay hotels in the downtown area. Along with the former Woolworth space, Courtyard by Marriott is planning a 169-room hotel on Michigan Street adjacent to the Grand Avenue Mall. While the deal has not been finalized, Extended Stay America, Inc., has plans to build a hotel on the former Ambrosia Chocolate factory site on North Fourth Street, between Juneau and Highland. The site, adjacent to the Bradley Center and MATC, is currently used as a surface parking lot.
Next door to the new Inn Towne Best Western, Milwaukee’s Hotel Wisconsin is renovating its rooms and lounge. And the Ramada Inn Downtown and Holiday Inn City Centre have refurbished and updated their facilities.
All of this hotel space will be necessary when conventions are in town. But what happens during the off periods when there are no conventions filling up the vacant rooms? McCarthy believes that attractions such as the IMAX theater, the Riverwalk, the new art museum wing and the proposed Harley-Davidson museum all add to Milwaukee’s appeal to keep visitors coming back.
“If we keep adding to the cultural and entertainment assets within the city, visitors will have a variety of things to do,” McCarthy says. “If we keep adding to that list, it will give people a reason to revisit Milwaukee.”
While the Midwest Express Center and other new Milwaukee attractions have been at the heart of the downtown hotel boom, it appears those developments have had little, if any, effect on Milwaukee’s surrounding communities.
Denny Moyer, executive director of the Sheboygan County Chamber of Commerce, thinks the new convention center is good for Milwaukee and the state, but adds that it won’t affect the economy in Sheboygan.
Other than unusually large events, such as the recent 95th anniversary of Harley-Davidson, which caused full capacity in its hotels, Sheboygan rarely feels Milwaukee’s economic influence.
What Moyer would really like is Sheboygan’s own convention center.
“Kohler is first class, and they have their clientele already,” Moyer says of the exclusive community just west of I-43 from Sheboygan. “What I’d like to see is a convention center in downtown Sheboygan that could accommodate companies that can’t afford having their conferences at the American Club.”
Kenosha and Racine counties are in the enviable position of lying halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. The Radisson Hotel and Conference Center near I-94 in Kenosha was recently developed with its prime location in mind.
Dave Blank, the executive director of the Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau views the opening of the Midwest Express Center as an opportunity for Racine to focus on smaller conventions of up to 500 people. There’s just one problem: Racine does not have its own convention center.
Racine has expanded its hotel capacity with the newly opened Holiday Inn Express, a 107-room hotel located just off of I-94 and Hwy. 20, near the Ramada Limited. The Radisson, located in downtown Racine, has added 30 rooms, and there are several other hotel deals in the works, according to Blank.
As for construction of a convention center for Racine, Blank remains hopeful.
“By no means are we built out,” he says.
Brookfield has experienced a hotel building boom in recent years, with developments being built up along the Bluemound Road/I-94 corridor.
“I think what’s really driving the hotel development is the number of office developments throughout the area,” says Kathleen Cady, Brookfield’s economic development coordinator. “A lot of the hotels being built are extended-suite hotels.”
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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