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Wisconsin Center District outlines plans for expansion of convention center (UPDATE)

Wisconsin Center District officials released plans on Friday for the long-proposed expansion of the downtown Milwaukee convention center, a project that promises to create more than 1,000 construction jobs and cost as much as $425 million.

The project is meant to add 112,000 square feet to the event space by building onto a parking lot at the southwest corner of West Kilbourn and Vel R. Phillips avenues. The Wisconsin Center District board sat down on Friday for a briefing on the project, a meeting that included an overview of the designs for the expansion and the project’s finances.

Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks said the work would provide about $100 million in construction wages — about $66.7 million in direct wages for 1,150 workers and another $33 million for a similar number of support workers. A joint venture of Gilbane and C.D. Smith is serving as the construction manager on the project, and Milwaukee-based Eppstein Uhen Architects is designing the project with Atlanta-based TVSdesign.

“There’s a momentum, there’s a pride in what we’re doing and the way we go about doing our business,” Brooks said. “WCD is thinking unconventionally and taking strategic risks.”

The Center District board is expected to vote on a financing plan for the project in early April. Preconstruction work is already taking place and is expected to continue until February 2021. The expansion itself could wrap up in the second quarter of 2023.

The plans could run into a roadblock, however, if a proposal submitted to a committee on Tuesday advances. The proposal calls for withdrawing the support Milwaukee officials had previously given the project.

The Wisconsin Center District still needs the city to approve the state’s previous moral-obligation pledge to back debt that needs to be issued for the project. A provision in the state’s biennial budget would guarantee as much as $300 million worth of debt issued by the district. Brooks has said that pledge will save the board between $40 million and $50 million in interest payments.

Brooks said the expansion could cost a maximum of $425 million, but said a final figure wouldn’t be on hand until March 16. Should the Wisconsin Center District approve the financing plan at its meeting on April 2, officials will hold a bond sale later that month and should be able to secure cash for the project on May 6, Brooks said.

Rob Svedberg, principal at TVSdesign, said the design team is taking steps to prevent the expanded version of the convention center from diverging greatly from the current building’s appearance. Much of its exterior south end will remain the same, even as the expanded north end has more of a modern design.

The project’s design team is also working to ensure the building’s appearance complements the nearby Fiserv Forum; the two structures will serve as bookends of the city’s downtown entertainment district, he said.

The expanded north side of the Wisconsin Center will have a third-floor 30,000-square-foot ballroom and second-floor convention space, a water feature near its main entrance and outdoor patios. Ultimately, designers were charged with drawing up plans for 300,000 square feet of contiguous event space, 24 meeting rooms and parking for 400 vehicles.

The project is also coming with various hiring goals. Projects officials have committed to ensuring that 40% of the man hours on the project go to Milwaukee County residents and to hiring minority firms for a quarter of the needed contracts, women-owned companies for 5% and disabled-veteran-owned companies for 1% of the work on the building.

Gilbane and C.D. Smith are the two main contractors on the project, and the board has already hired a number of subcontractors. Among them are: GRAEF, as a structural engineer; Kapur & Associates, of Glendale, as a civil engineer; and Henderson Engineers, of Kansas City, for mechanical, electrical and plumbing work.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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