MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee is already booking conventions for a building that doesn’t yet exist. Site preparation is scheduled to begin in July on a $420-million expansion of the Wisconsin Center.
The President & CEO of the Wisconsin Center District, Marty Brooks, is dreaming about the projected opening in 2024, but he’s focused on the present. He’s working to fill the Wisconsin Center, UWM Panther Arena, and Miller High Life Theatre as the travel, convention and entertainment business emerges from the pandemic.
“I'm expecting in the next 2-3 months to see a much more active calendar taking shape for the third quarter and fourth quarter this year,” Brooks said. “I think 2022 is going to be a spectacular year for all venues, because of the pent-up excitement to get entertainment back in place.”
Brooks expects both UWM Panther basketball, and Milwaukee Admirals hockey to return to the Arena this year. “We fully expect that both teams will play a full season of games in the Arena at 100 percent capacity,” Brooks said, “limited if no mask restrictions required.” He’s also working on bringing back the Milwaukee Wave soccer team.
While acknowledging the Miller High Life Theatre has been underutilized, Brooks sees post-COVID potential for that venue as well. “Even though this is bigger than some of our entertainment facilities and smaller than others. I think what we're going to find, especially post-COVID, that facilities of this size, 4,000 seat theater is going to be in high demand. That's why I'm very optimistic we have opportunities we haven't touched here.”
Just across Kilbourn Avenue, fencing will soon go up around the surface parking lot. The plot of land immediately north of the current convention space is the site for a long-discussed, and according to supporters, much-needed expansion of the Wisconsin Center.
The WCD Board gave a final green light to the plan in spring, despite the uncertainty of the business due to COVID. Brooks is undeterred. “We thought it was reasonable to believe that the economy would be back close to, if not all cylinders, from COVID in 2023.”
The expansion will nearly double the size of the Wisconsin Center. Supporters have long claimed the City has missed opportunities for conventions because the building couldn’t support them. Brooks says it’s not only about booking larger conventions but about flexibility, being able to book multiple conventions to run at the same time.
“Right now, once somebody books our building, we're out of commission. By doubling the size, somebody comes in with the same size or similar size convention, we can book it either simultaneously or overlapping. Now if they're using the building to load out, somebody can't load in. We're very bullish that the strategy we're taking is the right strategy," he said.
Brooks confirmed at least one scenario already for 2024 where the Wisconsin Center is double-booked, utilizing the new space the addition will provide to secure a contract Milwaukee otherwise would have lost.
The WCD is publicly funded. In addition to its earned revenue, the District is supported by public dollars. The WCD benefits from a city hotel tax, a county hotel tax, a county-wide food and beverage tax, and a rental car fee added at the airport. Only the county hotel tax was raised, half of one percent, to help fund the expansion. While Brooks says he takes the responsibility of public funding very seriously, he also notes much of it comes from outside the area.
“The point I ask you to consider is the vast majority of people paying City/County hotel tax and the rental car tax are not city and county residents. They're visitors. They're business travelers and leisure market. So, it's not as though we increased the property tax and everyone in the city and county has to pay it," he said.
He believes, however, the entire city and county will enjoy the benefit. Beginning with the construction contract alone, the WCD inserted a robust community benefits package. Twenty-five percent will contract with minority-owned businesses, five percent women-owned businesses, and one percent disabled veteran-owned businesses.
Additionally, the project will insist that 40 percent of the construction jobs will go to City of Milwaukee residents. The total cost of wages alone is estimated at $100 million.
Brooks boasts that’s just the benefit of building the place. “I'm hopeful to live long enough to have someone come up to me, tap me on the shoulder 20 years from now and say, ‘well, I was a skeptic. I didn't think it could be done.' But we have five more five-star hotels in the market. We've got 50 more restaurants, 27 more bars, the river activity is unbelievable, and we're going to be a part of that.”
Heavy construction on the site could begin late this year, with the opening projected for early 2024.
Click here to see additional renderings and details on the project from the Wisconsin Center District.