Robert Dunn, president and managing partner of the Hammes Co., heads a real estate construction and consulting firm involved in numerous hospitals and sports venues, including the $75 million Kohl Center at UW-Madison, the $295 million remake of the Packers’ Lambeau Field and the New York Jets’ $1.6 billion MetLife stadium in New Jersey.
Hammes also is building the Minnesota Vikings’ new $975 million stadium and the company was hired earlier this year by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce to provide advice on renovating or replacing the BMO Harris Bradley Center with a multi-purpose facility.
But it’s the Hammes’ hospitality arm that has generated the most heat — at least in Madison. Its upgrade of the Edgewater Hotel on the shore of Madison’s Lake Mendota raised the ire of some neighbors and was mired in lengthy controversy over $16 million in public funding before Dunn received private financing in 2012 for the project.
Work on the hotel is now nearing completion, with a projected opening date of August. When finished, it will have a new tower in addition to the two original buildings erected in the 1940s and 1970s. The updated and expanded Edgewater will feature more than 200 guest rooms and an outdoor public plaza overlooking the lake.
Brian Clark interviewed Dunn in late March about the long road to getting Edgewater project off the ground, as well as Hammes’ bid to remake Madison’s downtown Judge Doyle Square.
Brian Clark (BC): What will the $100 million Edgewater renovation add to Madison’s hotel and convention scene?
Robert Dunn (RD): Madison as a market hasn’t been as active as other markets in the country in the last 10-15 years as far as adding to the hotel inventory and building a more diverse product. I think the city is catching up with others. The Edgewater has such a great history and a unique location. It is at the doorstep of the university and it’s right by the lake. It is at the intersection of all things that defines Madison. We don’t have a place on the waterfront like Edgewater. For visitors, I think it’s going to be a way to experience the things that make the city great. For the locals it’s going to be the place that everyone will want to come to.
BC: The process for getting approval and financing for the Edgewater was long and drawn-out. At one point in 2011, Mayor Paul Soglin declared the project dead. How did you get beyond that and revive the effort?
RD: We spent a lot of time and years putting the approval together. Madison is one of the more challenging communities to get a project approved. This is a large project, so it took more time. We were also advancing the project when the economy wasn’t doing well. So it got more attention, because it was the only thing moving at the time. My feeling from the beginning was that it’s such a unique location with great history. We wanted to do a landmark project, something that would become a destination on its own. We didn’t want to compromise that. We didn’t want to build a small hotel or anything that wasn’t as impactful on the community. We wanted to do something that would be a signature and bring back the Edgewater that people used to know and used to come to. I’m confident that we would be able to reestablish the Edgewater as the people’s place.
BC: Why did you stick with it?
RD: We were really passionate and had the right vision. We got the right support from the community. Madison is the type of city where even a few voices can slow things down. In the end, we felt our vision would carry the day. I don’t know that I would have worked as hard on anything else. I really believe The Edgewater is one of the most unique development sites in Wisconsin. We thought it deserved to be more than just any other hotel.
BC: Where did the financing ultimately come from?
RD: It’s a bank financed project and we have a substantial amount of private capital on our own. We were committed to the project. Coming at the time when the economy wasn’t doing well, we were willing to support it with our own capital.
BC: Was this one of the more difficult undertakings you’ve worked on? How would it compare with others you’ve done around the country?
RD: Our business is generally to be involved in these community-anchored destinations — whether it is a sports venue or entertainment venue. That’s the nature of our work. They’re all complicated projects. The Edgewater wasn’t more complicated, but it is the largest project we’ve taken on. It’s all complicated when it comes to financing a project. We were confident in our vision and were willing to carry things through to the end.
BC: Your company was recently picked to be a partner for the Judge Doyle Square effort. What do you foresee that project looking like when it’s finished – if it goes forward, of course.
RD: That’s a significant opportunity for Madison. We’re excited to be involved. This is the other book end to our vision for downtown. There will be a hotel, residential, retail, and governmental use. It involves one of the true landmarks of the city. It’s a great location. We think it has a lot of potential. We are at the early stages. This project helps fulfill John Nolen’s plan for Madison. Both The Edgewater and JDS are true landmark projects that will be the anchoring elements of our downtown.
BC: What kind of public financing with the JDS undertaking have and do you have any concerns that it might be pulled down the road?
RD: We’re in the early stages of the project. It’s a true public project. It includes the redevelopment of the municipal of the city, parking structure, etc. We do anticipate that there will be public support. It’s important to understand that a major portion of the project is a public project separate from the private development. It’s too soon to talk about the public funding. With any project with public funding, it’s always challenging. We have all the supporting arguments you need to secure that. There’s a commitment from the city to move forward. In the end, we’ll come up with the right vision, and we’ll be successful in getting it done.
BC: Any other thoughts on doing business in Madison?
RD: We’re making a major investment between the two projects so we’re committed to the market and supporting Madison. We believe in the growth that the city has to offer. In a lot of ways, we’re making as big of an investment in Madison as anyone has made in a long time. I’m from the city, and I know a lot of people here. I feel strongly about the market and if I didn’t I would have chosen a different market. We’re happy to be involved in these projects.