Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:12 pm
Proponents of the proposed event center in downtown Racine say the new venue would allow the city to continue using its profitable smaller facilities.
For decades, Racine attempted to use Memorial Hall and Festival Hall for public events. But with a capacity of about 1,500 – without seats and without a hotel connected to either space, the city had been unable to accommodate large conventions at the sites, which are both located along the lakefront.
Over the past five years, the focus has shifted from public events to private parties, weddings and local shows.
The change has resulted in a 20 percent increase in both usage and the number of events held at the venues, said Amanda Gain, executive director of the Civic Centre, which manages Memorial Hall, Festival Hall and Paul P. Harris Rotary Park.
While this has been occurring in Racine, a plan has been in the works to build a 208,000-square-foot hotel and event center nearby at 322 Lake Ave. The $55 million project would include a three-story, 3,500-seat event center and a seven-story, 150-room adjoining hotel.
The project would be paid for, in part, by a yearly tax increase to homeowners of $11.78 per year for the owner of a $100,000 home.
One confirmed tenant, a United States Hockey League team, will sign a letter of intent when phase two of the project is approved.
City officials believe there is also potential to host another 100 to 175 events per year at the event center, which could include sporting events, ice-related events, concerts and special events including proms and weddings.
The city council is expected to vote on the project in December.
Opponents have said the event center is not needed because Racine’s other venues are not being used. But Gain said people are not aware of all of the private events taking place at Festival Hall and Memorial Hall.
“Memorial Hall is amazing, but it has limitations because the stage is smaller and it was built in the 1920s,” Gain said. “The misconception that nothing is occurring at the Civic Center is because the bookings have shifted to private events from public events.”
Nonprofit organizations and veterans groups have been using both venues, and so have couples who have held their rehearsal dinners and weddings at Memorial Hall or at Rotary Park, a 30,000-square-foot park adjacent to Festival Hall.
“We have three amazing venues on the lake that many people don’t know about,” Gain said. “We are trying to break down stereotypes and reach out to groups that have not been here before.
In 2013, there were 144 events at the Civic Centre’s three campuses attended by 88,381 people, according to the Downtown Racine Arena Market and Feasibility Study published in August 2016. In 2016, there were 176 events attended by 90,110 people.
The change has also assisted the Civic Centre properties in becoming more profitable and relying less on the city for operation. The city’s operating subsidy to the Civic Centre has decreased by 68 percent over the past 10 years, according to the city’s budgets.
In 2007, the city spent $321,563 to subsidize the Civic Centre. In 2017, the city’s subsidy was $219,000.
“We’ve seen a shift in our industry as a whole,” Gain said. “Private events are where the money is being made and it is really filling our venues.”
In addition, the city has started doing its own events at Festival Hall including the Belle City Bridal Show, which attracted about 250 people, and a Brew Fest in March that sold out with 1,000 people.
At Memorial Hall, the Ultimate Fighting Championship held a sold-out cage fighting match featuring Ben Rothwell, and a roller derby event was also hosted.
“Public events take time to build and grow,” Gain said. “With each of these shows it’s about gaining exposure for the venues. Some people didn’t know we did weddings at memorial hall. We’ve been working hard to break down the stereotypes that it’s too expensive. People are still hung up on Harbor Fest and Salmon-a-Rama, but those were 20 years ago.”
Gain said having an event center won’t take away from what is being done at Festival Hall and Memorial Hall because the bigger shows held at arenas are typically held in the winter months, whereas the Civic Centre venues are typically busier in the warmer months.
“The possibilities are really endless,” she said. “I won’t have to shred request for proposals anymore from conferences that want to take advantage of the fact that we are on the lake, that we have a great downtown, but we just don’t have a large enough space.”