Local leaders celebrate ‘topping off’ of $456 million convention center expansion

Expanded facility already resulting in the booking of larger events

A banner with "Baird Center" and the names of contractors and designers of the expanded convention center hangs from the final beam for the structure on Wednesday. (Cara Spoto/BizTimes)

Last updated on May 17th, 2023 at 05:34 pm

The $456 million expansion of downtown Milwaukee’s 25-year-old convention center reached a major milestone on Wednesday afternoon, as officials, including Gov. Tony Evers gathered to mark the placement of the final piece of structural steel into place.

The placement of the final beam – the last of roughly 6,000 tons of steel that has gone into the project – paves the way for the remaining 317 days of construction on the site – days when Milwaukeeans and visitors will truly be able to see the expanded building take shape right before their eyes.

When it’s completed next May, the newly dubbed Baird Center will total 1.3 million square feet, including 300,000 square feet of exhibition space, 24 new meeting rooms, 400 indoor parking spaces, and a roof-top ballroom with outdoor terraces.

The expanded convention center will also include quiet rooms, nursing mother rooms, all-gender bathrooms, on-site food composting and a solar roof.

Gilbane Building Co. and C.D. Smith and a bevy of subcontractors, including many local-and-minority-owned firms began construction of the project in late October 2021. Engineers with Milwaukee-based GRAEF designed the structural steel for the expansion.

The Wisconsin Center District (WCD), which operates the convention center, announced in March that it had inked a 15-year naming rights agreement with Milwaukee-based financial services firm Baird, that will take effect upon the expansion’s opening in May of 2024.

“We are at a point in the project where we will start seeing our vision really coming to life, and I couldn’t be more excited about where we are,” WCD president and CEO Marty Brooks told a crowd gathered to watch the event on the patio of the Miller High Life Theater across the street from the construction site. “This will allow us to not only solicit larger events but allow us to hold simultaneous and overlapping events; putting more ‘heads in beds’ for our hotel partners and more table turns for restaurants, bars, and taverns.”

VISIT Milwaukee president and CEO Peggy Williams-Smith noted that the increased size of the convention center is “getting a whole new group of meeting planners excited about the possibility of bringing their meetings and events here to Milwaukee.”

“My team is thrilled to have already booked large, prestigious conventions into the expanded Baird Center – events that might not considered us, had the expansion not happened. These include Connect Marketplace in 2024, which will bring in 4,000 attendees – 1,000 of which are meeting planners who will now have what is essentially a weeklong site visit to explore everything there is to love about Milwaukee and the expanded Baird Center.”

Williams-Smith also noted that the expanded center will allow for overlapping and simultaneous events, which will reduce the number of days that events can’t be held because groups are moving in or moving out of the facility.

But the “topping off” event was primarily one of many “thank yous.” Brooks thanked the staff of the Wisconsin Center District, which has continued host events within the existing areas of the convention center, and the other venues that WCD operates, like the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Miller High Life Theatre, and to the Wisconsin Center District Board, which voted to approve the massive expansion in April 2020.

“Authorizing a $456 million expansion at the height of a global pandemic was a strategic risk. Thank you for trusting our team to build the convention center Milwaukee needs,” Brooks said.

Cara covers commercial and residential real estate. She has an extensive background in local government reporting and hopes to use her experience writing about both urban and rural redevelopment to better inform readers. Cara lives in Waukesha with her husband, a teenager, a toddler, a dog named Neutron, a bird named Potter, and a lizard named Peyoye. She loves music, food, and comedy, but not necessarily in that order.

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