Report: Convention Center needs to be expanded to increase business

Next step is figuring out how to finance the project

Wisconsin Center
The Wisconsin Center

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:57 am

Downtown Milwaukee’s Convention Center should be expanded to increase the exhibit hall space to 300,000 square feet and 1,000 hotel rooms should be added next to the downtown facility, according to the latest feasibility study commissioned by the Wisconsin Center District.

The Wisconsin Center

The $60,000 study by Tampa, Florida-based Crossroad Consulting is similar to previous studies done by the district, which also concluded a larger convention center is needed to increase business.

How to pay for the expansion has always been the sticking point.

Susan Sieger, president of Crossroad Consulting, estimates cost per square foot to be $450 to $500, putting the 111,000 expansion at $50 million to $55 million.

However, a source at the Wisconsin Center District said additional improvements that would be necessary that would increase the total project cost to about $150 million to $200 million.

“I’m not saying build it and they will come,” Sieger said. “But to me, 250,000 square feet (of exhibit space) is a little bit too modest of an expansion to change your mix, and fit your long-term needs.”

The current convention center, which was built in 1998, is 266,000 square feet, with about 189,000 square feet of exhibit space. By comparison, Cincinnati has 196,800 square feet of exhibit space at its convention center; Columbus has 373,000 square feet; Minneapolis has 475,000 square feet; and Indianapolis has two convention venues totaling 749,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Scott Neitzel, Secretary of the Department of Administration and chairman of the Wisconsin Center District said he will look at the financial health of the district. He asked Sieger to look at how much an expansion could increase revenue.

“We’ll see if those match or don’t match and make the next call,” Neitzel said.

The Wisconsin Center District owns and operates the Wisconsin Center convention center, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre.

A state law passed in summer 2015 gave ownership of the new Bucks arena to the Wisconsin Center District and required the district to provide $93 million for the arena.

The district is funded by three Milwaukee County taxes: a 2.5 percent tax on hotel rooms, a 3 percent tax on rental cars, and a 0.5 percent tax on food and beverage; plus an additional 7 percent tax on hotel rooms in the city of Milwaukee.

The only tax the district board has the authority to raise is the Milwaukee County room tax, to 3 percent, which would generate an additional $1 million per year.

The Wisconsin Center District would need the authorization of the Republican-controlled state Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker for it to make any other tax increases.

For her findings, Sieger conducted surveys with regional, national and international meeting planners.

She found having a campus-like setting is very important. Milwaukee is currently at a disadvantage because when people come here, they find it difficult to get around because of lack of signage, she said.

Ideally, the convention center should book-end a downtown district, Sieger said.

Sieger also recommends updating the existing convention center space for a seamless flow to the new construction.


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