Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Rally ‘Round the Convention Center, Boys

By - Aug 9th, 2001 01:52 pm

It was a mere three years ago that the Midwest Express Center opened, as a state-of-the-art solution to the city’s convention needs. So why are officials already talking about expanding?

“We may not need it now, but we will in the future,” says Dick Geyer, president of the Wisconsin Center District, which runs the Midwest Express Center. Geyer would like to add 75,000 to 100,000 square feet of exhibition space by extending the Midwest Express Center in a northerly direction. He estimates this would cost $100 million to $150 million, which of course would be charged to taxpayers, through the district’s ability to collect hotel-motel, car rental and other taxes.

Does the three-year-old Midwest Express Center need to be expanded by 50 percent? It could cost $150 million.

This would expand the convention center’s exhibition space, which now stands at 189,000 square feet, by about 50 percent, a rather major increase so soon after building the current center. But Geyer says this is needed because, “We are one of the smallest convention centers.”

In most cities, you’d expect the mayor to be leading the charge for expansion. Not Milwaukee. “Is expanding the convention center that important?” asks Mayor John Norquist. “Everybody wants to have a bigger convention center even though they’re all losing money. There’s kind of a political culture that surrounds all this stuff. It’s always assumed to be good for the community. Usually it’s the interest groups that press for it and the news media thinks it’s a prestige thing for the city.”

The case for building, as Norquist suggests, always begins with boosterism, and competing with other cities. “Frankly, compared to our competitors, we’re behind,” says Doug Neilson, president of the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If we don’t build it and we lose market share to our competitors, that’s something we need to know.”

Statistics compiled by the GMCVB a year ago show Milwaukee is ahead of Nashville (with just 118,000 square feet of exhibition space) and around the same as Louisville (191,000) and Seattle and Memphis (205,000). But we’re well behind many other mid-sized cities, including Baltimore (300,000), Cleveland (375,000), Charlotte (280,000) and Kansas City (388,000). Many other cities on the list were well ahead of Milwaukee, though the figure for them included expansion plans that had not yet occurred.

Mayor Norquist is dubious: “Everybody wants to have a bigger convention center even though they’re all losing money.”

That sounds bad, but according to Vanessa Welter, public relations director for the GMCVB, “we’re able to host 90 percent of the conventions with our current size.”

That leaves a mere 10 percent of conventions, but Welter notes these are “very lucrative” conventions that Milwaukee has difficulty attracting. “For those first tier cities like Chicago or Orlando or New York, we can’t compete with them.”

But can a city like Milwaukee ever compete against these big guys? “We just secured the NAACP,” Welter notes. “We were competing against LA and they chose Milwaukee.
Some people want to cut costs and Milwaukee is very affordable.”

But if Milwaukee’s low cost is the draw, wouldn’t it be better not to raise prices with a higher hotel-motel and car rental tax?

“The Wisconsin Center should really look at the data,” Norquist says. They need to make a case for the expansion. It’s the kind of thing that needs more public discussion”

So far, notes Robert Milbourne, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, “there’s been no market study to test whether there is a need.”

But convention officials have anticipated that question. Neilson says a consultant will soon be studying the situation. He expects a company to be hired in thirty days and the study to be done in three months. He also seems to know what conclusion it will make: “I would be very surprised if it didn’t say build.”

Norquist argues that because convention centers actually lose money and can only justify the expansion by grabbing tax money, “it’s not connected to markets.”

But convention officials will point to the economic impact of expansion, particularly on hotel creation. “Since the Midwest Express Center opened we had a 30% increase in downtown hotels,” Welter notes. “We went from 2,597 hotel rooms to 3,673.” If an expanded convention center brought more visitors to Milwaukee, that number would increase further.

Milbourne offers another reason for expansion: The Midwest Express Center looks incomplete, architecturally speaking. “Now it ends short of Kilbourn and looks unfinished. The new phase will bring it all the way to Kilbourn and the Arena and the Auditorium.”

Inevitably, one suspects, proponents will find many justifications for expanding, and the business community and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will back the project. For Geyer, it’s a simple proposition: “Do we built it now or do we build it later?”

Short Takes

Another big project that is still being discussed is the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra‘s idea of creating its own performance hall. The MSO has been studying the conversion of the old Centre movie theater on Wisconsin Avenue, but a source says the renovation could run as high as $40 to $50 million. “Acoustics are an issue in that building,” the source says. The MSO has reportedly decided to look at the Riverside Theater, and may do an acoustical test there.

Still AWOL: New MATC president Darnell Cole, who took office July 1, has yet to arrive in Milwaukee. “It may seem odd that I have been MATC’s president for almost 30 days but I am still in Indiana,” he recently wrote the MATC board. “Stranger to me is the the fact of my having been awarded the position as president – a career high – only to have it initially overshadowed by circumstances beyond my control.” You can read the complete letter from Cole, who is reportedly recovering from back surgery.

Posing for Holy Pictures: Some have wondered whether Gov. Scott McCallum has much substance, but the question of whether he is photogenic has been answered once and for all. Yes, the guv has created a photo gallery with more than 50 candid shots of him doing everything but taking the garbage out at night. Everyone will no doubt have their favorite photo. Is it McCallum yukking it up with Brewers manager Davey Lopes? Scotty beaming up at Butch’s Bologna Bash? The governor looking dyspeptically at Omro dairy farmer Pete Knigge? Check it out at and let us know your own choice of favorite gubernatorial photo.

Around the town: Good citizens and aldermen Willie Hines and Jeff Pawlinski are both serving on jury duty this week. Pawlinski marvels at this coincidence. “What are the chances of that?” he asks… Architect David Uihlein has a fake owl on top of his roof to scare away pigeons. “The sea gulls just perch on it,” one observer notes…Milwaukee Magazine editor John Fennell has been limping for two months because of an arthritic knee. He recently had an operation to correct the problem…The magazine for the first time broke a story on its website, and it’s very juicy, a laundry list of the legal problems of Norquist’s attorney Anne Shindell. You can read it at

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us