We Must Imitate Other Cities
New study says we must build a Bucks arena and bigger convention center. But its data actually tells a much different story.
Hunden Strategic Partners thinks big. The Chicago-based company helps cities with the development of huge projects, like convention centers, sports facilities and entertainment districts, as its website notes. Inevitably its findings are about aping other cities, with little regard for what it might cost taxpayers, and that’s essentially what its new study on Milwaukee offers.
The study warns that we mustn’t lose the Milwaukee Bucks, must increase the size of our convention center and must build a new hotel nearby with at least 800 to 1,000 rooms. Yet its analysis of where Milwaukee has succeeded, in areas like the Third Ward, Brady Street and Milwaukee Street’s restaurant row, concludes this activity has nothing do with the convention center, Bucks, or hotels near the convention center. Even Water’s Street’s vibrant bar scene, the study says, is too far from the convention center to matter.
That’s not to say the study doesn’t offer some interesting information. But as a road map to how Milwaukee can rejuvenate Downtown, it strikes me as unhelpful, contradictory and blind to its own contradictions.
The firm they chose certainly boasts that, but its top executive Rob Hunden also is responsible for saddling Kansas City taxpayers with a huge bill. Hunden was a vice president with C. H. Johnson when he helped Kansas City create its Power and Light District. The downtown entertainment district has been lauded for reviving a blighted area in that city, but at a high cost to taxpayers, as I’ve written. It has fallen short by $15 million annually, all money the taxpayers must contribute.
Hunden would also like to see Milwaukee’s taxpayers spend more. For starters, his report recommends a bigger convention center. Hunden does a comparison of Milwaukee with ten other mid-sized cities, and finds our center needs to nearly double in size, adding 220,000 square feet, to reach the average in these other cities.
As for hotel rooms, Milwaukee is about average, with 11 walkable hotel rooms per 1,000 square feet of convention center exhibition space, yet Hunden concludes that Milwaukee needs “a large 800 – 1,000-room convention hotel adjacent to the Wisconsin Center, especially if the facility expands.” Yet to maintain the current average of walkable rooms after convention center expansion would require only a hotel with 242 rooms. Hunden maintains that the ideal scenario is 15 “walkable hotel rooms” but offers no rationale for this, and his entire report is based on meeting the average in other cities. So why do we need a hotel that big and what developer would want to do this?
As the study notes, “Building large hotels is very difficult due to the cost and space required for development, and as a result, is typically viewed as not feasible by the private sector.” Cities elsewhere have spent “a total of $4.5 billion” on hotel developments with the public sector subsidizing “nearly 33 percent of the costs and this may not include land costs.”
Wow. So now the taxpayers, in addition to paying for doubling the convention center and building an NBA arena, will be asked to go into the hotel business? And what will be their reward?
“The cost and investment of keeping the Bucks is one worth working hard for, as the loss of a team can be devastating to the downtown economy,” Hunden warns, but offers no evidence whatsoever of this contention. The clear consensus among economists is that there is no economic spinoff from such investments, and Hunden never addresses this.
As for the need to increase the convention center, its own data undercuts that recommendation. For starters, the study finds Milwaukee’s convention attendance has increased by nearly 130 percent between 2007 and 2014, while convention hotel room nights increased 26 percent during the same period. So the convention center has done pretty well in recent years.
As for what a bigger convention center might accomplish, the study’s analysis of the Wisconsin Center “suggests that the convention-generated business downtown is minimal. The sales generated by those coming downtown from the suburbs (and beyond) for major events, especially during the summer, is a significant impact on downtown.”
In short, the convention center is not bringing much business downtown. So why should the city should invest more money in it?
Hunden notes that Downtown north of the convention center has dead spots that need to be filled. But this dead zone is arguably due to all the large institutional buildings in the area: the Wisconsin Center, UWM Panther Arena, Milwaukee Theatre, Bradley Center, etc. Adding another huge addition to the convention center, and an even bigger-scaled NBA arena, will simply increase this institutional footprint.
Hunden urges that any new bars or restaurants opened near the new NBA arena be connected to the street activity rather than facing or being inside the facility, something also emphasized by Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux at yesterday’s conference held to discuss the new study.
But how many total restaurants and bars are we likely to see locate near the Bucks arena? Three? Five? The Bucks owners haven’t been willing to offer any details on this. And Hunden’s analysis shows that Milwaukee’s Downtown has only 95 restaurants, compared to an average of 195 in the ten peer cities. Will sprinkling a few restaurants or bars near an NBA arena do much to change the situation?
Meanwhile, the restaurant business is booming not far from here. Hunden notes all the activity and nightlife on Milwaukee Street, Brady Street and the Third Ward. Is doubling the size of the convention center or building an NBA arena likely to bring more business to these areas? Perhaps for Milwaukee Street, which benefits from the nearby Pfister Hotel and the new Marriott, which in turn may get hotel nights from the convention center. But that relationship is already occurring despite the supposed inadequacy of our current convention center.
The bizarre thing about the study is how it ignores its own findings about the strengths of Milwaukee. While Milwaukee’s metro area has 1.6 million people compared to an average of 2.1 million in the other ten cities, Milwaukee ranked 6th of 11 in total downtown population, counting employees and residents, and second in downtown residents, with 25,000. The study notes that since 2000, the downtown population in Milwaukee has increased by more than 25 percent and the median income of downtown households increased by 38 percent. More than $500 million in housing developments and 5,000 housing units have been added to Downtown since 2005. And all this growth has happened despite that dreaded dead zone near the convention center.
Yet the study, instead of looking to build on these strengths, suggests the city add exactly the things already found in these other cities, exactly the things it cautions can grow stale. “If an entertainment complex feels like it could be anywhere and does not seem to ‘belong’ within the city’s urban fabric,” the study warns, “then the newness will wear thin after a few short seasons.”
The study also notes how spread out Milwaukee’s Downtown is, yet recommends we make it more spread out, by creating yet another center of activity near a new NBA arena.
By far the most successful area of the 11 cities when it comes to downtown restaurants, the study finds, is Portland, and these restaurants and major hotels are all located across the Willamette River from the convention center and NBA arena, but connected via light rail. So much for the importance of walkable restaurants and hotels.
The study does talk about Milwaukee’s streetcar and its potential to some day connect areas like Brady or Milwaukee St. or the Third Ward to the convention center. For the present, this report leaves a careful reader with little reason to think a new NBA arena, convention center or hotel will do much to rejuvenate Downtown. It seems more likely taxpayers would spend greatly to create a generic district that has little connection to Milwaukee’s unique culture and history and little long-term appeal.