Baird Center Reaches Highest Point
Topping-off ceremony for $456 million Wisconsin Center expansion draws dignitaries a year before completion.
Milwaukee’s biggest construction project reached a key milestone Wednesday.
A crew of ironworkers hoisted a steel beam to the top of the $456 million expansion of the Wisconsin Center as part of a “topping off” ceremony watched by dozens of onlookers from across W. Kilbourn Ave.
“This day represents a significant turning point. In the weeks ahead, the construction team will begin to enclose the building and really focus on the interior,” said Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks. “We’ve had 5,850 tons of steel delivered, 575,000 hours worked and 40,514 cubic yards of concrete poured.”
When completed, the convention center will be renamed the Baird Center, after the Milwaukee-based investment advisory firm.
“The Baird Center reflects our commitment to Milwaukee and our enduring belief in its potential to continue to grow as a modern, forward looking city that is an attractive destination for organizations around the world to do business and for people to come and live,” said Robert W. Baird and Co. CEO and chairman Steve Booth.
The expansion plans call for adding 112,000 square feet of space to the exhibition hall, creating a 300,000-square-foot hall. A rooftop ballroom will have a 2,000-person seating capacity and outdoor terraces. A total of 24 meeting rooms are being added to the building, bringing the total to 52. The expanded facility will have 22 loading docks and a 400-stall indoor parking structure.
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 increased size is also helping her organization draw more business.
She said the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) annual convention could return to the city for the first time since 2000. “[They] couldn’t even come back without an expanded Baird Center,” said Williams-Smith. The 2022 convention in Kansas City drew an estimated 10,000 attendees.
Williams-Smith might have been underselling the likelihood of the VFW event returning. The VFW website lists the 2027 convention location as Milwaukee.
She said VISIT has already secured two new conventions based in part on the expansion: the Connect Marketplace convention in 2024 for approximately 4,000 event planners and the 2025 National Guard convention with 4,000 attendees.
There’s also the big kahuna that no one mentioned publicly Wednesday: the Republican National Convention.
The expanded facility will fill two city blocks, running from W. Wisconsin Ave. to W. Kilbourn Ave., and from N. 6th St. to N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. The front door of the facility will be oriented north from W. Wisconsin Ave. to the corner of N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and W. Kilbourn Ave.
The expanded facility is scheduled to open in May 2024, with Brooks noting that the contracting team is scheduled to have the building “substantially complete” in 317 days.
“I am proud to see an organization dedicated not only to crafting the building that Milwaukee needs, but also being intentional about the people who are building,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson. He praised the district’s goals of assigning 25% of contracts by value to minority-owned businesses, 5% to women-owned businesses and 1% to veteran-owned businesses. At least 40% of project work hours are to be performed by city residents or certified through the city’s Residents Preference Program (RPP) for unemployed or underemployed city workers, a requirement which is a looser version of the city’s RPP requirement.
Brooks praised the members of Iron Workers Local 8 for safely lifting the beam, which was signed by the project team. A “topping tree” (small pine tree) was also placed atop the beam, a superstitious sign of good luck and worker safety that can be traced back to Scandinavia.
“This project is a testament to our state and Milwaukee’s place as a tourist destination,” said Governor Tony Evers.
“In 2021, the greater Milwaukee area accounted for 25% of total tourism impact in Wisconsin,” said Secretary of Tourism Anne Sayers. “Visitors spend more tourism dollars right here in Milwaukee than anywhere else in the state.”
WCD Board chair Jim Kanter, chief commercial officer at Central Standard Craft Distillery, praised his board colleagues for moving ahead with authorizing the expansion in April 2020 when little was known about the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of authorizing a $420 million expansion, the district raised the countywide hotel tax by a half percentage point (to 3%) to expand its debt reserve fund.
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 the 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.
The board also authorized an additional $36 million in August 2022 after Brooks had revealed earlier that year that component prices were coming in higher than initially expected. The Wisconsin Center District is covering the cost increases with $20 million in new long-term borrowing, $7 million from a short-term bond that will be paid back this year from a restricted reserve account, $5 million from a grant from concessionaire Levy Premium Foodservice and $4 million from excess interest income.
The original convention center, known then as the Midwest Express Center, was completed in 1998.
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Read more about Wisconsin Center expansion here