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WisBusiness: Hammes Co. looks to build on state stadium work

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

The Hammes Co. is perhaps best known for creating huge stadiums filed with rabid sports fans and hospitals for healing the sick. But the company also has a hospitality side, which has proposed a controversial $110 million remake of the Edgewater Hotel on the shore of Madison’s Lake Mendota.

The focus now is the Edgewater project, which has run into strong neighborhood opposition even as Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is backing the project and has endorsed $16 million in tax incremental financing (TIF) support. The opposing sides are now negotiating a compromise.

But before that project put the company in the spotlight, it built the Kohl Center (for hockey and basketball) on the UW-Madison campus and managed the $295 million renovation of the Packers’ Lambeau Field.

It also built Ford Field in Detroit for the Detroit Lions and is now in the midst of putting up the $1.3 billion stadium for the New York Giants and the New York Jets in New Jersey.

And another football facility may be in the works for Los Angeles, according to Bob Dunn, president and managing partner of Hammes.

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WisBusiness.com spoke to Dunn recently about his company’s development work, as well as his support for Aaron’s House, a facility near the UW-Madison campus for young men with alcohol and drug-abuse problems.

Dunn, who started with the real estate development firm 16 years ago, moved up the corporate ladder as the company grew. He heads the non-healthcare side of the firm, focusing on sports, academic, entertainment and commercial endeavors.

A graduate of UW-Madison and an Edgewater High School graduate, he said he is most proud of his work on Lambeau Field and the Kohl Center.

There have been many “challenging and interesting projects, but some strike a little closer to home and you have a bit more of a personal stake.”

Dunn said he’s been working on the Edgewater Hotel effort for more than a year.

“We’ve come up with what we think will be a very interesting development plan,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do yet. But we’ve had a lot of support and hope to build on it,” he said.

“As with any project, however, there are voices within the community that have concerns,” he acknowledged. “We are doing our best to understand those concerns and do our best to address those.

“But I really do believe it is a project that can change the complexion of downtown Madison in a very positive way going forward,” he said. “It would also improve access to the waterfront at a landmark location.”

The renovated hotel would include 230 hotel rooms, 364 parking spaces, restaurants and meeting space. It would also have an 11-story tower.

Dunn said he was pleased with the mayor’s backing of the TIF proposal.

“With projects like this, you need all the support you can get,” he said. “So the mayor’s input is critical. But we still have a long way to go before we can proceed with anything.”

Ideally, he said his company would like to start work on the hotel renovation early next year and have it ready for reopening in late 2012.

Dunn said getting financing for building projects will be tough in coming months, but he said his overall sense is that the state and national economies are slowly improving.

“There will be continued turbulence, but we should see more stability than we’ve seen over the past 12 months,” he said. “However, a variety of things will have negative consequences for the economy before we see growth again.”

He said the focus on economic development,job creation and expanding the tax base should benefit his company.

“Our company has a tendency to get very active at these times because so much of what we do falls under the broad category of economic development,” he said.

“But we’re in a tough time for the economy and I think it will continue for the better part of the next six months to a year. Then we’ll start seeing a slow but steady pace of growth and a return to balance.”

On the non-business side, Dunn said he and his wife are big supporters of Aaron’s House, in large part because of Dunn’s own bad experiences with alcohol when he was a freshman and sophomore at the University of Colorado.

“My two years in Boulder were sort of the beginning of the end,” recalled Dunn, who no longer drinks. “It got control over my life.”

But after returning to Madison some 23 years ago, he was able to quit. His mother had died of cancer and he knew he needed to change his lifestyle.

“I pretty much gave it up cold turkey,” he said. “I decided alcohol and I couldn’t even be casual acquaintances.”

Dunn said he has been talking with officials at Aaron’s House for nearly a year about what he could do to help. On Sept. 1, he joined the Aaron J. Meyer Foundation board of directors.

In addition, the couple donated $25,000 to the Aaron J. Meyer Foundation, with a goal of raising $50,000 by December, 2009.

“It’s really geared toward helping young men get their lives back on track. It’s focused on overcoming the difficulties of substance abuse, whether it is alcohol or drugs.

He said young people have great potential, but some in the early college years are “captured by the negative impacts of alcohol and drugs.

"Aaron’s House does a nice job of working with young people to help them get control of their lives and get back on track and accomplish the things they like to do.”

Dunn said he and his wife also would like to see a similar home for women with substance abuse problems.

“We’d like to see that become a reality,” he said. “It’s an idea since Aaron’s House was opened three years ago. My wife and I would like to see that vision come about.

“When I look around Madison at the start of a new semester I think back to how I struggled through that period of my life. I hope I can help build on the success of Aaron’s House and drive toward the dream of a similar facility for women,” he said.

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