Downtown Milwaukee's convention center is bouncing back from COVID-19 — and sees a financial benefit from the pandemic response

·3 min read
The public agency that operates downtown Milwaukee's expanding Wisconsin Center had a better than expected financial performance in 2021.
The public agency that operates downtown Milwaukee's expanding Wisconsin Center had a better than expected financial performance in 2021.

Downtown Milwaukee's convention center is bouncing back from COVID-19 — and has seen a financial benefit from the pandemic response.

The Wisconsin Center District, the public agency that operates the Wisconsin Center, finished 2021 with net income before depreciation of $15 million.

That's a bit more than double the $7.3 million had been expected for 2021. And it compares with a 2020 loss of $9.3 million.

That's according to a report Friday to the district's board.

That "remarkable" financial performance came despite the postponement of conventions and other gatherings, said Steve Marsh, district chief financial officer and senior vice president.

The district landed a hit by hosting the multimedia show "Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience," Marsh said.

The show started on July 9 and finished a twice-extended run on Jan. 9. It was a walk-through exhibit that surrounded audiences with projected imagery from "The Starry Night" and other famous Van Gogh paintings.

"We could not have hoped for a more successful event," Marsh told board members.

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Also, the district earned revenue when the Wisconsin Center was leased in the early part of 2021 as a federal COVID-19 vaccination center.

Around 145,000 people were vaccinated at the convention center in March, April and May.

That rental revenue helped the district pay operating expenses during the first half of the year, Marsh said.

The district also benefitted from a $980,000 grant from a federal program that targets live entertainment venues affected by COVID-19, he said. The district's other facilities are the Miller High Life Theatre and the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.

The district is seeing an increase in bookings for new events, said Marty Brooks, chief executive officer and president.

"We are very encouraged on how 2022 is looking," he told the board.

However, Brooks mentioned one concern: FPC Live's proposed music venue near the Summerfest grounds in the Historic Third Ward.

That could have an impact on Miller High Life Theatre, he said.

Meanwhile, the district's $420 million expansion of the Wisconsin Center remains on schedule, said project manager Mike Abrams, senior director at Denver-based CAA Icon.

The expansion, which began excavation work in late summer, won't be completed until early 2024 — when conventions and other large groups are expected to again be booking events at pre-pandemic levels.

Abrams did say steep price increases for steel and other construction materials, fueled by inflation, are a concern. But, he added, the project's contingency fund so far is holding up.

The expansion will double Wisconsin Center's space — allowing it to host two major events at the same time.

Annual direct spending of visitors to Wisconsin Center, estimated at $105 million in 2019, is expected to increase to $154 million during the expansion's first year, according to a study by HVS Global Hospitality Services, a consulting firm based in Westbury, New York.

The project's debt will be paid off over 40 years by countywide hotel, restaurant and car rental taxes levied by the district.

The district, an agency created by the state, also earns revenue through conventions and other events.

This article was revised because the 2021 income figure was initially reported incorrectly.

Tom Daykin can be emailed at tdaykin@jrn.com and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Downtown Milwaukee's convention center is bouncing back from COVID-19

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