Construction of the $420-million expansion of the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, the state’s largest convention center, is moving forward nearly a year after issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic put it on hold.
The project nearly doubles the size of the center by adding 112,000 sq ft. The expansion was halted in April 2020 due to uncertainty in the bond market and the loss of sales tax revenue in the pandemic-devastated travel and hospitality industries. Now, with hopes that the convention and travel industry will return in the not-too-distant future, the expansion has received the green light to proceed from the Wisconsin Center District, the state-created agency that operates the convention center and is selling bonds financing it.
“The bond sale closed in mid-December 2020, and the funds were transferred to the trustee. The transaction is complete,” said Sarah Maio, vice president of marketing and communications for the WCD.
The WCD’s board relied on information provided by HVS Global Hospitality Services, a consulting firm based in Westbury, NY, to make the decision to move forward.
“In mid-2020, HVS predicted a return to hotel room night occupancy by 2023 to 2019 levels, which was a record year,” Maio said.
She added that “the manner in which the bond debt was structured sets the district up for repayment beginning in 2028, giving the market ample time to not only rebound, but for the district to be more robustly prepared for a catastrophic event such as a pandemic by adding to our reserve.”
The scope of the expansion project, which is slated to open in March 2024, has not changed from the original plans. According to Maio, it will create about 300,000 contiguous sq ft of exhibition space and add at least 24 flexible meeting rooms, a ballroom with seating for 2,000, six loading docks, an executive kitchen and at least 400 parking spaces.
“The only thing that has changed is the awareness and ability to incorporate infectious disease mitigation strategies into the design before it’s even built,” Maio said.
Maio said that joint venture construction manager Gilbane/Smith will oversee 2,300 construction-related jobs created for the project.
Thirty-one percent of the jobs will be given to minority, veteran or women-owned-businesses according to the contract (25% minority, 5% women-owned, 1%, veteran-owned), and 40% of on-site construction jobs will be dedicated to city and county resident-held positions.
Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of the conventions and visitors bureau VISIT Milwaukee, applauded the board’s decision to proceed.
“Meeting planners are booking now for 2023 and beyond, and we want to position the Wisconsin Center as the newest and best convention space amongst our peer group,” she said in a statement.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in mid-October that the pandemic has not been kind to the district, which also operates the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre. It is expected to end 2020 with a loss of $2.7 million. The district had been slated to bring in about $21 million in net income in 2020 before the Democratic National Convention and numerous other events were canceled due to the pandemic. WCD receives tax revenue from car rentals, sales taxes at the convention center and restaurants and hotel rooms within the district to pay back its bonds.
The Wisconsin Center expansion was designed by Milwaukee-based firm EVU, and tvsdesign — which has offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Tampa and Shanghai — and designed The Music City Convention Center in Nashville. The design team is revisiting the original documents to add measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Gilbane/Smith said they plan to begin construction in the fourth quarter of 2020.
“There are already several pieces of confirmed business for the expanded facility,” Maio said.
The Wisconsin Center opened in two phases, in 1998 and 2000. The third expansion will occupy what currently are convention center parking lots between West Wells Street and West Kilbourn Avenue.