Milwaukee Convention Center Expansion Moving Forward

Architectural Firm Hired, Project Expected To Break Ground Mid-2021

The Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee
The Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. Image courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

For years, Milwaukee officials have discussed renovating and expanding its downtown convention center but numerous studies and setbacks have delayed the process.

But a state budget provision providing the financial backing needed to pay for the likely $300 million project jump-started talks earlier this year. On Thursday, Wisconsin Center District President and CEO Marty Brooks announced Atlanta-based tvsdesign had been selected to design the expanded convention center.

The Wisconsin Center District and tvsdesign are expected to select a construction manager in about a month and break ground on the project in spring 2021.

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Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, is a member of the Wisconsin Center District Board, which oversees the convention center. He said the expansion will be a great thing for Milwaukee.

“As Milwaukee goes, so goes the state,” Fitzgerald said. “Overall it will be interesting to see this process. You have an older convention center, as now they are expanding that footprint and they’ve got to make that mesh, so it will be interesting to be part of those discussions.”

Previous expansion plans relied on increasing local sales tax, but the state Legislature showed little support because they wanted the district to find additional funding.

Gov. Tony Evers included a state budget provision granting the Wisconsin Center District up to $300 million in bonding for the expansion project — which essentially means that if the district can’t repay its debt, the state will cover the cost.

The Milwaukee Common Council also has to approve the provision, which it is scheduled to do in January or February, Brooks said.

There are five criteria that must be met, under state guidelines.

That includes:

  • The new expo hall must be 100,000 square feet.
  • The convention center must attract at least 50,000 out-of-state visitors annually.
  • It must stimulate at least $6.5 billion in total spending in the state over 30 years beginning on the date the bonds are issued.
  • It must generate at least $150 million in incremental state income, franchise and sales tax revenues over 30 years.
  • It must support at least 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs — those jobs include construction jobs.

If the Wisconsin Center District fails to meet those guidelines, the state won’t back them for the bonds.

After the Common Council approves the provision — which it’s expected they will do — it will be sent to the Joel Brennan, the Secretary of the Department of Administration, for his signature. Brennan is on the Wisconsin Center District Board.

On April 2, the district will meet again to finalize the cost of the expansion and move forward with the project.

The current Milwaukee convention center, which was built in 1998, is 266,000 square feet, with about 189,000 square feet of exhibit space. By comparison, Cincinnati has 196,800 square feet of exhibit space at its convention center; Columbus has 373,000 square feet; Minneapolis has 475,000 square feet; and Indianapolis has two convention venues totaling 749,000 square feet of exhibit space.

VISIT Milwaukee and Brooks have said Milwaukee has missed out on larger conventions because meeting planners choose similarly-sized cities with newer and larger convention centers.

Brooks said Thursday he has a wish list for the new expansion center. Aesthetically, he would like to see a water component, because of Milwaukee’s connection to the water.

He said he also wants to make sure there are enough restrooms, including, gender neutral bathrooms, so visitors have a comfortable experience.

“We need to build this, so they come, not if they come,” Brooks said. “We’re building this so there are things in our building that are what the meeting planners want and that differentiates us from other markets.”