Jeramey Jannene

Public Can Tour Baird Center Expansion

Open house for expanded convention center is May 18; event is free.

By - May 7th, 2024 01:28 pm
Construction is nearly complete at the Baird Center. Photos by Jeramey Jannene.

Construction is nearly complete at the Baird Center. Photos by Jeramey Jannene.

You won’t have to pay to attend a conference to see inside the $456 million Baird Center expansion. The Wisconsin Center District is hosting an open house on Saturday, May 18 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The free event will allow the public to walk the entire project, which is intended to attract host larger events or logistically allow two conventions to be hosted simultaneously.

The expansion reorients the building toward the intersection of N. Vel R. Phillips and W. Kilbourn avenues and adds a large new lobby, a multi-story waterfall and more than a dozen new art pieces. The third-floor exhibition has also been expanded from 188,000 to 300,000 square feet. A fourth floor is included in the new half of the complex, dubbed the North Building, which includes a 30,000-square-foot, 2,000-guest ballroom and a large outdoor deck that offers skyline views. Several new meeting rooms and common spaces are on the lower levels.

You can get a taste of what there will be to see by reading Urban Milwaukee’s April coverage. But plenty will have changed by the grand opening, including the installation of several more art pieces, the removal of a temporary wall dividing old from new in the exhibition hall and the finishing of several common area spaces.

Members of the public do have a compelling reason to see inside the building: they paid for it. 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% hotel room tax, 0.5% food and beverage sales tax and 3% rental car tax. As part of authorizing a $420 million expansion in April 2020, the district raised the countywide hotel tax by a half percentage point (to 3%) to expand its debt reserve fund. The state provided a $300 million moral obligation that guarantees the 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. Driven primarily by inflation, the project’s costs grew by $36 million in 2022 and were offset by a series of financial moves.

The Baird Center is likely to get plenty of television time this summer. It’s being rented out as part of the Republican National Convention and will be primarily used by the media.

If you can’t wait until the 18th to get inside, there is one other option. A grand opening gala, with special guest performer Idina Menzel, will be held May 16. Tables, starting at $7,500, are sold out, but there is a waiting list.

The expansion was designed by a partnership of tvsdesign and Eppstein Uhen Architects. A partnership between Gilbane Building Co. and CD Smith is leading in general contracting.

The expanded facility fills two city blocks, running from W. Wisconsin Avenue to W. Kilbourn Avenue, and from N. 6th Street to N. Vel R. Phillips Avenue.

April Photos

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