It’s time to expand the convention center

Commentary

Wisconsin Avenue is the Main Street of downtown Milwaukee. But the street has struggled for years with empty storefronts, other vacancies and a lack of foot traffic.

However, with downtown Milwaukee in the middle of a renaissance, there is finally hope that Milwaukee’s once-Grand Avenue (West Wisconsin Avenue’s former name) will be so again.

Recently announced plans to transform the vacant Warner Grand Theatre into a performance hall for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the redevelopment plans for The Shops of Grand Avenue are building excitement on West Wisconsin Avenue. If those projects are successful, they could help jolt the street back to life.

Then there’s the situation at North Fourth Street and West Wisconsin Avenue. It’s a parking lot, which is a huge embarrassment to the city since it is situated between the mall and the largest hotel downtown (the Hilton Milwaukee City Center), and across the street from the Wisconsin Center, the downtown convention center. The fact that such a critical site is only used for parking demonstrates how much downtown has struggled until recently.

The site is owned by the city, which has been unable to attract any development on it. Last June, city officials again decided to issue a request for proposals for Fourth and Wisconsin. The city has received two proposals for the site and they are from the two firms battling for downtown Milwaukee hotel supremacy (see our cover story). The Marcus Corp. proposal includes an 11-story, 276-room expansion of the Hilton, 61,500 square feet of meeting and exhibit space and a 200-unit apartment tower. The Jackson Street Holdings LLC proposal includes three hotels with a total of 506 rooms and 100,000 square feet of meeting space.

Both of these are impressive projects. But they also both depend on a long-planned expansion of the Wisconsin Center, which will require taxpayer money. The project could cost $225 million to $240 million.

The Wisconsin Center District has hired consultants to do a facilities study. I will spare you the suspense: The Wisconsin Center needs to be expanded.

The facility is smaller than most convention centers in similarly sized cities, which puts Milwaukee at a competitive disadvantage in trying to attract conventions. A larger convention center, and more hotel rooms, would help Milwaukee attract more meetings and events. Although Milwaukee is not a big tourist destination, its central location in the U.S. and lower costs compared to larger cities like Chicago make it more appealing to meeting planners than one might think, if we had the necessary facilities.

A larger convention center also would help fill hotel rooms and attract more hotel development, most notably at Fourth and Wisconsin, and would be another big boost toward the revitalization of Wisconsin Avenue.

Wisconsin Center District officials need to figure out if they can finance an expansion with their existing taxing authority. If not, state and local leaders need to figure out a way to pay for a convention center expansion, just like they found a way to fund the arena project.

Now is the time to build on the momentum downtown and keep it going bigger and better.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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