Jeramey Jannene
Friday Photos

Inside Milwaukee’s Biggest Construction Project

Mayor, Wisconsin Center CEO tour convention center expansion. Johnson says Milwaukee will land RNC.

By - Apr 1st, 2022 06:21 pm
Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, second from left, gets a tour of the Wisconsin Center expansion site. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, second from left, gets a tour of the Wisconsin Center expansion site. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Construction work is progressing steadily on the $420 million expansion of the Wisconsin Center.

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson was given an up-close look at the progress Friday afternoon as he toured the site with Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks and construction workers from general contractors CD Smith and Gilbane Building Co.

“You guys are changing Milwaukee. You are changing the way Milwaukee looks, the way Milwaukee will be experienced for years to come,” said Johnson in brief remarks before donning a hard hat.

The acting mayor said he believed the expanded convention center would help the city land the 2024 Republican National Convention. The project is expected to be completed in early 2024, just a few months before the convention would take place.

“I feel extremely confident,” said Johnson. “I think that our pitch team, including Marty, the Wisconsin Center District, VISIT Milwaukee, all our partners in the state, have done a phenomenal job pitching Milwaukee, pitching Wisconsin for the convention. I think that we did collectively an outstanding job last week in Washington D.C. and I think ultimately Milwaukee be the site that’s chosen.”

But those currently pitching Milwaukee and the convention center need to rely on renderings. While the existing facility continues to operate, the expansion site facing W. Kilbourn Ave. is a mess of concrete, gravel and mud today.

Johnson got to look at how existing structural piles are being reconfigured to hold the existing building while the new one rises on its northern side. The third-floor hall is currently protected by a temporary north wall, which Brooks said allowed business inside to continue virtually uninterrupted.

But once the expansion is complete, things will be drastically different. The project will add 112,000 square feet of exhibition space to the convention center, creating a 300,000-square-foot main hall. Operationally, the facility will be able to host two conventions simultaneously. That will allow one show to load-in or out while another operates, eliminating “dark” days.

The Wisconsin Center and VISIT Milwaukee will also have a new array of amenities to pitch in order to book more shows. Multiple outdoor decks, an indoor waterfall and revamped common spaces will wrap the convention hall. A new 2,000-person ballroom and 24 meeting rooms will also be added

The building, which currently has an entrance at the corner of W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. Vel R. Phillips Ave., will be reoriented to the north with a new front door at the southwest corner of N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and W. Kilbourn Ave. The expansion is being built atop what is currently a surface parking lot along W. Kilbourn Ave., with 400 indoor parking stalls planned as a replacement.

As part of the project, WCD committed to a contracting and hiring program similar to one imposed by the City of Milwaukee on projects receiving city financial assistance. At least 25% of the work is to be committed to minority-owned businesses, 5% to women-owned businesses and 1% to veteran-owned businesses. At least 40% of project work hours will be performed by city residents or certified through the city’s Residents Preference Program (RPP) for unemployed or underemployed city workers. The work hours goal is a looser definition than the city’s 40% RPP requirement, which was required of Fiserv Forum‘s construction and all projects that receive $1 million or more in city financial support.

Johnson said prior to the tour that he has seen numbers showing 30% of the project work hours were being completed by certified RPP workers. “All the workers here reflect Milwaukee values that we know. It’s hard work, it’s professionalism, it’s quality, it’s integrity,” he said.

The project is being funded by district revenue, which includes a series of taxes in addition to rental fees. The district debt is backed by a 3% county-wide hotel room tax, 0.5% food and beverage sales tax and 3% rental car tax. The state is providing a $300 million moral obligation that guarantees project debt, reducing borrowing costs by up to $50 million. The district also refinanced $150 million in existing debt to create more financial capacity to take on the project. New project debt is scheduled to be repaid over 40 years.

As part of approving the expansion in April 2020, the district raised the countywide hotel tax by a half percent (to 3%) to expand its debt reserve fund. The Common Council negotiated a revenue-sharing agreement with the district as part of the expansion.

The original convention center, known then as the Midwest Express Center, was completed in 1998. Design work on the expansion is being led by a partnership of tvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects.

Construction Photos


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