Jeramey Jannene

$456 Million Baird Center Opens With Big Promises, Vision

100,000 more visitors every year, billions more in spending. See it yourself on Saturday.

By - May 16th, 2024 03:06 pm
Peggy Williams-Smith, Cavalier Johnson, Marty Brooks, Steve Booth and Jim Kanter cut the ribbon to open the Baird Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Peggy Williams-Smith, Cavalier Johnson, Marty Brooks, Steve Booth and Jim Kanter cut the ribbon to open the Baird Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

“My jaw has just been on the floor since I walked into the facility,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson after stepping to the podium at the Baird Center ribbon cutting Thursday morning.

Wisconsin’s premier convention center has doubled in size to approximately 1.3 million square feet, with a 300,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 24 new meeting rooms, a fourth-floor deck, large new ballroom, six new loading docks, a host of environmentally-friendly features and a 400-space parking structure.

“Doing this has allowed us to go after more events that wouldn’t have considered the Baird Center before due to the lack of space,” said Wisconsin Center District (WCD) President and CEO Marty Brooks.

Johnson won’t be able to pick his jaw if even half of the economic impact claims from the $456 million facility come true. A series of officials said it would bring an additional 100,000 visitors to the city annually, $12.6 billion in incremental spending over 30 years and $150 million in incremental state tax revenue.

Visit Milwaukee President and CEO Peggy Williams-Smith said the expansion is already helping. “Groups can now envision their events happening Milwaukee when they couldn’t before. I’m talking about groups like USA Fencing, which is holding its largest event here next July,” she said. The event, said the Visit CEO, would generate more than 13,000 hotel room nights and more than $10 million in economic impact.

“Thanks to the expansion, since July 2022 inbound leads to our team have doubled and that is part of what helped our team book over 246,000 [hotel] room nights for future years [in 2023], a new record for our organization,” said Williams-Smith. “Their goal this year is even higher and they’re on track to crush it.”

Williams-Smith said the organization saw a 115% increase in leads for groups in its “sweet spot” of 750-1,250 peak room nights.

“The Baird Center expansion and modernization will elevate our city to its highest potential and drive economic impact throughout southeastern Wisconsin and create not-to-be-missed experiences for everyone that walks into it,” said Brooks.

“Milwaukee is the heart of the state’s tourism economy and the Baird Center is a huge part of what makes it beat,” said Williams-Smith.

County Executive David Crowley praised WCD for meeting its contracting targets. “This project was not just built for Milwaukee, but by Milwaukee,” said Crowley. “[Brooks] set an incredibly high bar for other development opportunities here.”

A fact sheet says 25% of work, by value, was performed by minority-owned business (25% goal), 16.5% by woman-owned businesses (5% goal) and 1% by disabled-veteran-owned businesses (1% goal). It eclipsed the 40% target for compliance with the city’s Residents Preference Program by having 47.9% of work hours performed by Milwaukee residents that are certified to be unemployed or underemployed over a qualifying period. Of the project’s total work hours, 42% were performed by minorities (25% goal), 4.5% by women (5% goal) and 1.2% by disabled veterans (1% goal).

Brooks praised the vision of those who came before him, dating back to the South Building’s 1998 opening. “Thanks to the ingenuity of those that came before us, the original convention center was built for anticipated future expansions,” said the CEO, who has held the role since 2017. He also praised those involved in a broad push for an expansion. “It truly takes a village.”

Board president Jim Kanter and Brooks thanked the board for approving the project in April 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Brooks calling it a “strategic risk.” Inflation also dealt a blow to the project’s budget. Te project’s costs grew by $36 million in 2022 and were offset by a series of financial moves.

Robert W. Baird & Co. chairman and CEO Steve Booth said his company was pleased to have its name on the building. “Baird is extremely proud to be part of this important milestone in Milwaukee’s continued growth, prosperity and burgeoning global reputation,” said the CEO.

The event concluded with a group of Milwaukee Public Schools students joining with Brooks to install a time capsule in the building. It was filled with items they had created.

The ceremony was held at the base of the new “collaborative” staircase that functions as well as seating as it does for climbing. “Rosie,” the latest lifelike sculpture from Milwaukee artist Marc Sijan, lurked in the corner behind all of the speakers. The sculpture will stand sentinel over the Kilbourn Avenue lobby, a bookend to Sijan’s beloved sculpture of his father dressed as a security guard that watches over the Wisconsin Avenue lobby.

Rosie is one of more than a dozen new art pieces that line the common areas in the new building, known as the North Building. The existing South Building had its carpet, signage and other common elements replaced to harmonize it with the new building. For more on the art collection, see our April coverage.

The public will be able to explore the building from top to bottom on Saturday, May 18 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. as part of an open house.

“I want people to look at the intentionality of how we’ve done the interiors of the building,” said Brooks in an interview, ticking off a list of sensory rooms, nursing mother rooms, all-gender bathrooms, charging outlets at nearly every seat and lots of different seating options. “It’s something I hope the city is proud of. We were very intentional to have a lot of glass so it connects to the neighborhood. We want to make sure when it isn’t occupied it’s still vibrant, so we have color-changing lights, the water feature creating movement. When you’re outside the building, even if it’s dark, there is going to be a presence and hopefully added safety and security.”

Brooks said residents follow to see what public events are scheduled at the facility and neighboring WCD buildings.

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.

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.

What will it take to help the facility live up to its promise?

“The first thing that comes to mind for me in terms of what’s needed is public safety,” said Brooks in an interview. “You have to have a city that is safe and I think we’re doing a really good job with that. As far as amenities, more restaurants, more bars, more hotel rooms.

There’s been talk of ‘should we have a convention center hotel?’ It’s something I would love to see in the years to come, to see a 600-to-800-room convention center hotel. But that’s for tomorrow.”


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Categories: Real Estate

One thought on “$456 Million Baird Center Opens With Big Promises, Vision”

  1. Alan Bartelme says:

    I’d love to see someone track actual data to determine if that $12.6 billion of incremental spending over the next 30 years is really achieved. Too many projects claim huge ‘benefits’ to the community, but there’s no actual tracking whether those claims are ever met. How many benefits have been promised for supporting new public spending for the Fiserv Forum and American Family Field? You know in 20 years both will be back asking for more, so why aren’t we publicly tracking in real time?

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