Evers Budget Overlooks Convention Center
Wisconsin Center District plans downtown expansion by 2020, still hopes for state funding.
This week, Gov. Tony Evers announced $30 million in state money to expand the Alliant Energy Center in Madison as part of his capital budget, leaving many people in Milwaukee wondering if the Wisconsin Center will also finally be expanded.
Expansion of the downtown Milwaukee convention center has been discussed for years. Last summer, a consulting firm hired by the Wisconsin Center District presented three expansion concepts ranging in cost from $247 million to $277 million. But paying for the project has always been the sticking point.
The Wisconsin Center District expansion was not included in Evers’ capital budget.
“I don’t think the folks advocating for that have a proposal to bring forward, but the people have been talking to me about it,” Evers said. “That is a world-class part of the state and we need to make sure it continues to be, but a full proposal has not yet been provided.”
Marty Brooks, Wisconsin Center District CEO, said he still hopes to begin construction on the convention center expansion project in fall 2020.
“There are different options for funding and we need to assess where we are short,” Brooks said. “We don’t have that number yet, which is why we have not submitted an official ask to be in the governor’s budget. Whatever that number is, it will only be bridge funding from the state, or other options, to get us there. Believe me, no one is more anxious to get this resolved more than me.”
The Wisconsin Center District owns the convention center, the Fiserv Forum, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre.
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 state Legislature and Evers for it to make any other tax increases.
Still, the Wisconsin Center District’s chances of expansion have improved under the Evers’ administration. Former Gov. Scott Walker repeatedly said he would not raise taxes. Joel Brennan, Evers’ Department of Administration secretary, has served on the Wisconsin Center District Board for years and is still a board member.
Expanding the convention center could also prompt the development of a vacant block in the heart of downtown Milwaukee. In 2016, two hotel firms presented elaborate plans to develop the site, but both proposals were dependent on the convention center being expanded.
In Madison, the $77 million Alliant Energy Center project will expand the facility by 196,000 square feet and is expected to create 644 new jobs.
Milwaukee’s convention center was built in 1998. It 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.
Evers’ capital budget did allocate $100 million for a new state office building in Milwaukee that will replace the 56-year-old downtown Milwaukee building at 819 N. 6th Street. The location of the new building still has not been determined. The state Department of Administration has narrowed the site selection options to Milwaukee’s near west side and a nearly-vacant office building downtown.
The project is expected to be complete in August 2022.
Editor’s note: Laurel White contributed reporting to this story.
Milwaukee Convention Center Not Included In Evers’ Capital Budget But Supporters Still Eye Expansion was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio
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