If The Taxpayers Build It, Will Anybody Come?
Frank Gimbel, the chairman of the Wisconsin Center District, wants to substantially increase the size of Milwaukee's convention center. The Delta Center, with about 189,000 square feet of exhibit space, is about 150,000 to 400,000 square feet smaller than facilities in places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Kansas City, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Indianapolis.
Gimbel believes that if Milwaukee is going to be able to compete for large conventions in the future, the Delta Center needs to be expanded. When it was originally built, it cost about $184 million. To add an extra 150,000 square feet would probably cost in the neighborhood of $150 to $200 million. Presumably any expansion costs would be paid for through a variety of tax increases.
If this sounds familiar, it is. We've been down this road before.
A number of years ago, the community spent over $40 million to renovate the old Milwaukee Auditorium. The result was the Milwaukee Theater - a wonderful but grossly under utilized facility. As many of us argued at the time, there simply wasn't the demand for a public facility like this.
The same is true of the U.S. Cellular Arena - nice but largely vacant.
Which brings me back to the convention center.
The reality is that Milwaukee will never be able to compete for conventions with destination cities like Las Vegas or Orlando. Milwaukee also won't be able to compete with large warm weather destinations like San Antonio, San Diego, Miami or Phoenix.
So where will the large conventions come from? And will more space alone allow Milwaukee to lure convention business from larger cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh?
There was a report the other day about the closing of the latest restaurant/bar across the street from the Bradley Center. Despite what you would think would have been a prime location, there appears to have been little or no spillover from Bradley Center events. At the very least, there wasn't enough spillover to allow a business to make a go of it.
Which makes me skeptical of claims that a larger convention center would result in a huge boom to downtown business.
I'm not prepared to reject out of hand efforts to enlarge the Delta Center.
Before we go down this route though, we need some realistic projections of what results we're going to get for our money. Not "Milwaukee Theater/U.S. Cellular Arena pie-in-the-sky" predictions by those with a vested interest in the outcome - but honest and accurate projections.
For the time being, I'm pretty skeptical. Frankly, if the taxpayers build it, I'm very doubtful that anybody will come!