• WisBusiness

Friday, January 30, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Convention centers hope crowds follow new construction


By MaryBeth Matzek
As the mysterious voice whispered in "Field of Dreams," "If you build it, they will come."

Several cities around Wisconsin are hoping that's the case when it comes to their convention centers. In the past couple of years, convention centers in Oshkosh and in the Wisconsin Dells got updates and the KI Center in Green Bay is currently going through a $23 million expansion project taking that facility's square footage to 145,000.

Supporters in Appleton and Milwaukee hope to follow suit with expansion projects of their own.

Nowhere may the battle tougher than in Appleton, which has mulling over proposals for several years. A private group, the Fox Cities Exhibition Center, unveiled plans back in 2010 to build a $27 million exhibition center adjacent to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton and paid for by a room tax. The city would own the center and the Radisson would manage it. Supporters point to a study by the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau that the center would bring in an additional $6.5 million annually to the area.

Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the expo center is "a missing piece" in the community's offerings. While the Radisson has plenty of meeting space and a large ballroom for lunches and dinners, it lacks a large expo space for vendors.

While the concept sounds simple, it's not. First, Outagamie County owns the land and the city of Appleton still needs to buy it. Then there's the Radisson, which is currently up for sale after going through the receivership process. The hotel's new owners would need to agree to the management deal. Then there's the room tax – each community in the Fox Cities would need to approve it.

Right now, the land – which once housed a school – still sits vacant as the Appleton City Council still debates whether or not to spend $2 million to buy the property. Supporters aren't giving up, hoping that the land purchase, which is back under consideration by the city's Community and Economic Development Committee, will go through and that the other dominos needed to make the project a reality will also begin to fall.

In Milwaukee, plans for an expanded Wisconsin Center haven't moved as far along as they have in Appleton. Last May, the Wisconsin Center presented a report showing that an expansion will help Milwaukee win back events it has lost to larger venues. Right now, Wisconsin Center expansion plans seem to have taken a back seat in Milwaukee as a future home for the Milwaukee Bucks dominates conversations.

In every case, cities are expanding their centers because of fears they are losing out on events that are outgrowing their facilities. Whether it's a state organization bypassing the Radisson Paper Valley in Appleton and heading to the Monona Terrace in Madison instead or a national group taking Milwaukee off its convention list and moving on to larger facilities elsewhere, there's a real drive by cities to have larger and larger convention and meeting facilities. The real question is if by going bigger places like the KI Center will see increased volume. Time will only tell.

New home for Menasha Corp.

Menasha Corp., a family-owned provider of packaging, logistics and marketing services, says it will tear down its headquarters in Neenah along U.S. 41 this spring and replace it with a new 100,000-square-foot facility that will also serve as headquarters for Menasha Packaging Co., the company's largest subsidiary.

Menasha Corp. officials expect that 25 jobs will be added at the headquarters once the expansion is complete. During the demolition and construction, office employees will be housed at other Menasha Corp. sites in the Fox Valley or in rented office space. Operations at the adjacent corrugated manufacturing and fabrication plant will not be affected by the demolition or construction.

The entire project is expected to cost $28 million.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.

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