Wisconsin Center District celebrates construction start for convention center expansion

$420 million project will double the size of convention center

Rendering: tvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects
Rendering: tvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects

Local and state leaders were on hand Thursday morning to ceremoniously break ground on the $420 million Wisconsin Center expansion.

The expansion comes as the hospitality and tourism business is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials say an expansion will be a needed boon to the local tourism business and allow Milwaukee to better compete with peer cities for convention business.

“Our goal with the expansion is to be a space Milwaukeeans will want to host their events, sit outside and enjoy a coffee with a coworker, and show off to visitors as a point of pride in our city,” said Wisconsin Center District chief executive officer Marty Brooks, minutes before the ceremonious turning of dirt. “By doubling the size of the convention center, we’ll attract events for longer periods of time, that will spend more nights in our hotels and patronize more businesses.”

The expansion is happening north of the existing convention center, northwest of West Wells Street and North Vel R. Phillips Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. Construction got underway earlier this year with site work. It is slated to open in early 2024.

Project financing got the green light last year from WCD. The district owns and operates the convention center and other downtown event venues.

For the convention center to remain competitive, WCD said it must:

  • Increase the expo hall by 112,000 square feet, and integrate six loading docks to support the added space;
  • Offer a ballroom with at least 30,000 square feet and a minimum seating capacity of 2,000;
  • Add no fewer than 24 new meeting rooms; and
  • Include no fewer than 400 parking spaces

Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee, said the timing of the expansion is perfect.

“With group travel resuming and more and more meetings starting to take place in person, we’re already securing meetings and conventions for 2024 and beyond,” she said. “In fact, it was because of the expansion that we were able to secure the Travel, Events and Managements in Sports, or TEAMS conference, that will take place here in October of 2027.”

That conference will bring sports planners from across the U.S. to Milwaukee, and create an economic impact of more than $8 million, Williams-Smith said.

BizTimes magazine recently explored the near-term forecast of Milwaukee’s downtown hotel market. Hotel operators benefited from the return of leisure travel this summer, but are still waiting for corporate and group travel to return in a big way.

There’s more development to be had in the surrounding area. For one, the city is looking to redevelop what’s now a parking lot south of the Wisconsin Center, at the southwest corner of North Vel R. Phillips and West Wisconsin avenues.

The city is seeking developers to transform the site. It is also finalizing plans to build a public streetcar plaza there.

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