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Consultant recommends expansion for Milwaukee convention center

To attract more conventions to Milwaukee and better compete with other cities, the Wisconsin Center needs up to 300,000 square feet of exhibit space in total.

Also helpful would be an additional 1,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the current downtown convention center.
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Both recommendations were included in a study recently conducted by the by Tampa, Fla.-based Crossroads Consulting Services. Now the biggest question is: How to pay for it all?

The study was presented on Friday to board members for the Wisconsin Center District, a governmental body that owns and operates the convention center and other nearby buildings. Its recommendations called for adding to the existing center between 110,000 and 160,000 square feet of exhibit space; between 30,000 and 35,000 square feet of meeting space; and between 15,000 and 20,000 square feet of ballroom space.

Susan Sieger, president of Crossroads Consulting, estimated that the cost of such an expansion could run the district between $450 to $500 a square foot. That would put the total cost at between $70 million and $107.5 million.

And her estimate did not take into account any added costs that would come from renovating the existing convention center, a project the consultants also recommended.

Sieger said the cost-per-square-foot estimates were just “ballpark numbers,” and that more concrete estimates would be put together in the future.

She also cautioned board members that even a smaller addition – say, bringing the total exhibit space up to 250,000 square feet – would most likely be not enough to attract more conventions to Milwaukee.

“250,000 (square feet) to me is a little bit too modest for an expansion,” Sieger said.

Plans to renovate the existing center are also important, she said, since no convention-goers want to get the impression that they are using an”old space.” Simple steps to provide a fresher look could include installing new carpeting to match that found in the new part of the convention center.

The feasibility study found that Milwaukee was lagging behind peer cities — including Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Columbus —in accommodations such as exhibit space and hotels that are within walking distance of the convention center.

Consultants also surveyed prospective convention clients and found that 66 percent said they would most likely consider holding events at the Wisconsin Center if it were to be expanded to have 300,000 square feet of exhibit space.That’s 14 percentage points higher than said they would use the center if the exhibit space simply remained at its current size.

Now, board members’ attention will most likely shift to finding a way that the district might go about financing such an expansion. Some members might question whether the project is needed at all.

Scott Neitzel, the secretary of the Department of Administration, said he and his colleagues will next try to decide how the project might fit in with district’s budget. A recommendation might be made as soon as next month’s board meeting.

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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