How did we get here? The back story of completing the Wisconsin Center

September 9, 2020

When originally opened as the Midwest Express Center in 1998, the Wisconsin Center was designed with a Phase III expansion in mind, extending to the north to Kilbourn Avenue. In this or a fourth phase, the center would ultimately to be connected to the Arena and Auditorium. However, this expansion was delayed by the tumultuous economic and political currents of the 21st century’s opening decade.

In 2013, based in part on the 2012 Economic Impact Analysis, the Wisconsin Center District commissioned a feasibility study outlining the District’s competitive needs and proposing a modest expansion of 60,000 feet of new exhibit space, a 14,000 square-foot junior ballroom, and additional meeting rooms. This study was released on May 14, 2014.

Because this expansion initiative coincided with a separate community discussion about erecting a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks NBA franchise, the study went further in proposing a master plan to redevelop the downtown corridor between Vel R. Phillips Avenue and 6th Street as a pedestrian-friendly sports & entertainment district. The plans for the new arena project ultimately resemble this proposal.

This feasibility analysis, combined with the above operational assessment, led to a more detailed benchmarking report, expansion recommendations, and conceptual renderings:

In April, 2019, the District received results of a commissioned Tax Projection Study, which led to several concrete steps in preparation for launching a Phase III expansion project:

  • Pursuing self-financing in lieu of new hospitality taxes, WCD issued an RFP seeking a lender to administer a bond issue. Morgan Stanley was chosen.
  • The State of Wisconsin agreed to assume “moral obligation” to guarantee expansion project bonds in the event of default by the District, ensuring better borrowing rates.
  • Increasing executive authority to expedite the project, the WCD Board resolved unanimously in August to raises the cap on the value of project-related agreements which the President and CEO and Board Chairman are authorized to enter into, to $1 million. A revised project timeline also issued in August projects a groundbreaking in early 2021, and completion by early 2023.

In December 2019, the Board received a Spending and Fiscal Impact Analysis validating that the project will meet requirements for the state’s “moral obligation” underwriting of WCD bonds, and announced that tvsdesign and EUA had been selected as the architectural team to design the expansion of the Wisconsin Center.