No timeline for decision on convention center expansion

Report recommends greater cooperation with Visit Milwaukee

Wisconsin Center
The Wisconsin Center

It is impossible to put a timeline on when the Wisconsin Center District board will make a decision on the possible expansion of the convention center, the board’s chair, Department of Administration secretary Scott Neitzel said Friday.

Wisconsin Center
The Wisconsin Center.

Neitzel’s remarks came after a board meeting that featured a report on the Wisconsin Center District’s operations from California-based Barrett Sports Group and Florida-based Crossroads Consulting Services.

The report’s recommendations included increased cooperation between the district and Visit Milwaukee, hiring additional staff, improving financial reporting, generating additional revenue and conducting a new feasibility study on the expansion of the convention center.

Dan Barrett, founder and principal owner of Barrett Sports Group, declined to say how much the Wisconsin Center District could increase revenue by implementing the report’s recommendations. He said he didn’t know if they would add up to $1 million, but it certainly wasn’t $5 million or $10 million.

“I think everything we’ve recommended can be done by your existing structure,” said Susan Sieger, managing principal of Crossroads Consulting.

Neitzel said the report would serve as a basis for the Wisconsin Center District to get its operations in order before moving forward with bigger decisions. Asked if it would be one or two years before a decision on expansion would be made, Neitzel said “that would all be speculation.”

“It’s impossible to put a timeline on it at this point in time,” he said.

A previous feasibility study on the expansion in 2014 concluded the Wisconsin Center offered limited exhibit and meeting space compared to national competitors. Among the issues identified were a lack of hotel rooms and air access, poor local transportation and an overall lack of destination appeal.

That study, however, was completed before work began on the new Bucks arena and additional new development downtown.

The new report called for taking the new development into account along with a more detailed analysis of industry trends and facility needs.

“At the very least, I think it’s just a good best practice to just refresh what that study looked at given all the new circumstances,” Neitzel said.

The report also suggested the need to estimate the amount of new business an expansion could generate, the potential impact on the district’s finances and possible economic benefits.

“We’ve got to let the data drive the decisions. That’s much better public policy than try to make data based on a decision,” Neitzel said. “Let’s make sure we’re fixing a real issue and that it’s a real issue, not a perceived or a conventional wisdom issue.”

In addition to a new feasibility study, the report’s most specific recommendation was to create a joint sales and marketing advisory board involving the Wisconsin Center District and Visit Milwaukee.

The report found the high-level goals of the two organizations often do not align as the district seeks to attract events that maintain its bottom line while Visit Milwaukee focuses on generating hotel nights.

Another recommendation called for Visit Milwaukee staff to move into Wisconsin Center District facilities. The report suggested the move would help foster collaboration between the two entities.

“It’s very import to figure out a way to get those parties to work together,” said Dan Barrett, founder and principal owner of Barrett Sports Group.

Barrett said the two organizations could eventually move towards sharing administrative or support staff and depending on how things go, they could eventually merge into one organization.

The more immediate concern, he said, was getting the two organizations on the same page. Both groups produce lost business reports, but they do compile different information and neither does it in enough detail, Barrett says.

He also suggested the Wisconsin Center District look at additional collaboration opportunities with area organizations. Those possibilities included the Milwaukee Bucks for advertising or the Marcus Center and Summerfest for events and concerts.

The report also recommended increasing staffing in sales and marketing; research analysis; attracting concert and entertainment acts; and maintaining sports tenant relationships and event bids. The report did not offer a specific number of positions to add, leaving it to the district board to prioritize needs.

“Your staff is too overextended right now,” Barrett said, repeatedly telling the board it needed to hire experienced, innovative and entrepreneurial people.

The report also recommended improved financial reporting; noting certain general, administrative and overhead costs are currently not allocated to individual facilities, leaving the impression that each building operates profitably.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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