Work is scheduled to begin soon on a new conference center and hotel in Brookfield, a project that could both bolster the city’s mall even as big-box stores flee and keep visitors coming to the region.
City officials recently announced a bid package for the $32 million project, which will give the city its first large conference center. The project is to take place in a building once occupied by a Sears Auto Center store, one of three anchor tenants to leave the Brookfield Square mall in recent months.
Nancy Justman, president and chief executive officer of Visit Brookfield, said the plans for the new conference center come as part of an attempt to draw in people who might be visiting Milwaukee and other nearby places but nonetheless wind up staying in Brookfield hotels. The city’s largest existing space holds about 10,000 square feet, which is too small to bring in large events, conferences or trade shows, she said.
Justman said city officials scouted a series of sites before settling on the former Sears space at Brookfield Square. The city plans to pay for the conference center using about $24 million worth of tax-increment-financing and hotel-room taxes.
“We have vetted a ton of sites and we think we finally have the magic cure to accommodate the things we’re looking for,” Justman said. “The timing was right for the use of room tax to go toward this project.”
Plans for the 57,0000-square-foot conference center call for the addition of a kitchen, offices and a 16,000-square-foot ballroom that can be divided into smaller meeting spaces. A glass walkway will connect the conference center with a 168-room Hilton Garden Inn hotel, managed by North Central Group, a hotel developer out of Middleton.
Brookfield’s plans also come as cities across southeast Wisconsin are re-evaluating their conference-center spaces.
In Racine, city officials had been considering building a $55 million lakefront hotel, conference center and arena but Mayor Cory Mason eventually vetoed those plans.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, is weighing weather to expand its Wisconsin Center. But that project is steadily becoming more expensive. A recent consultant’s report suggests the proposed project would run between $247 million and $277 million, an increase from a previous estimate of $225 million to $275 million. What’s more, there’s no financial plan yet in place showing how the expansion would be paid for, and the report found 1,000 new hotel rooms would need to be added within walking distance to support the upgrade.
In Brookfield, the city’s large array of hotels has helped spur the conference center project, Justman said. Without the conference center, visitors will continue leaving Brookfield for events elsewhere.
Still, Justman said, there’s a limit to what the carpteted conference center’s ballroom can accommodate.
“This is not an expo center with concrete floors,” she said. “You’re not going to flip it for cow shows.”
The city plans to award contracts to build the conference center in two phases. The bids will due on Sept. 5 for the first contract for site utilities, grading, foundations and other work. A pre-bid conference is scheduled for 2 p.m., Thursday at Brookfield City Hall, 2000 N. Calhoun Road.
The city plans to release a second bid package in fall 2019. A groundbreaking is scheduled for October and officials hope to complete the hotel and conference center by early 2020.
The conference center and hotel may also help Brookfield Square compete in a brick-and-mortar retail market in which big-box stores are steadily disappearing amid competition from Amazon.
Beyond the proposed hotel and conference center, the former Sears site at Brookfield Square will also be home to a Marcus Theatres BistroPlex, a WhirlyBall restaurant and game center and other eateries.
Stacey Keating, a spokeswoman for Chattanooga, Tennessee-based CBL Properties, which owns Brookfield Square, said the city’s plans for the conference center will help drive traffic to the mall.
“Overall, I think the conference center and hotel is going to be a great draw to the area” Keating said, “It’s going to have a good relationship (with Brookfield Square). I think there will be great synergy between the two.”Follow @natebeck9