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Wisconsin Center District to weigh $425M expansion in light of COVID-19

A rendering depicting plans for the expansion of the Wisconsin Center District's convention center in downtown Milwaukee. (Rendering courtesy of Populous)

A rendering depicting plans for the expansion of the Wisconsin Center District’s convention center in downtown Milwaukee. (Rendering courtesy of Populous)

Wisconsin Center District officials are weighing their option for advancing a $400 million expansion of their organization’s downtown Milwaukee event center in April, amid fears that COVID-19 could derail the project.

The Wisconsin Center District board will meet on April 2 to consider the expansion after the outbreak derailed financial markets, throwing the board’s planned late-April bond issue into question. The Center District had planned to issue up to $425 million in borrowing to finance an overhaul that would nearly double the size of the event center and create some 1,100 construction jobs.

“Our expectation up to about two weeks ago was to go to market in late April to capitalize on rates,” said Center District CEO Marty Brooks in a statement. “Obviously the world has changed since then. The plan now is to secure permission from our board to take the steps necessary to be market-ready when the market rebounds.”

In early March, project officials presented the Center District board with an overview of the planned expansion, which would build an addition onto the north side of the Wisconsin Center in what’s now a parking lot. The new space would have a third-floor, 30,000-square-foot ballroom, a 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 Center District board was initially expected to approve a final financing plan for the project on April 2, then issue bonds for the expansion later that month and receive cash from the sale in early May. Construction was slated to begin in February and wrap up in 2023.

COVID-19-related event cancellations have also affected the center’s day-to-day operations, Brooks said. The bond sale was partly intended to allow the district to plan for economic downturns such as the coronavirus outbreak.

“The financing package that we are seeking to secure not only funds the expansion of the Wisconsin Center but also helps us focus on some additional financial planning and strategy to support the long term growth and success of the WCD,” Brooks said.

Project officials estimated that the construction of the expansion could create 1,150 direct construction jobs and generate more than $100 million in wages for those building the project and those supporting it.

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.

Brooks said the board in August authorized spending up to $1 million on pre-construction work, which the lead contractors have completed.

“The project is where it needed to be at this point,” Brooks said. “Our April 2 board meeting will guide and determine our next steps.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

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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