Wisconsin Center District breathes new life into historical area

As the 1-year anniversary of the lease-signing for the new Milwaukee Bucks stadium approaches, the Wisconsin Center District in downtown Milwaukee is breathing new life into a historical area through sports, entertainment and diverse conventions.

The district takes up six square city blocks, and comprises three facilities: the Wisconsin Center convention space, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, and the Milwaukee Theatre.

The WCD is a semi-autonomous district, separate from state, county or city government, that can collect taxes in Milwaukee County on things like rental cars, food and beverages, and hotels. Levied taxes can only be used to pay bonds, not for operations.

It was created in 1994, and given the power in 2015 to issue bonds for the new Milwaukee Bucks arena and oversee that facility. The Bucks and the WCD signed the lease agreement keeping the team in Wisconsin for the next 30 years on April 13, 2016.

The district was also tasked with the demolition of the BMO Harris Bank Bradley Center, and running the future operations of the Marcus Center for Performing Arts.

But its history goes back further than that. The public market house was built on the site of the WCD blocks in 1867, followed by the Industrial Exposition Building in 1881. That in turn was replaced by the Milwaukee Auditorium in 1909.

“Preserving our history is very important to us,” said Anne Schwartz, director of communications and public affairs for the WCD. “For all the upgrades and things you see for the arena, we still preserve that history.”

The UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, opened in 1950, was recently upgraded with a host of features like better lighting, Internet connectivity, new restrooms, and much more. The refurbishment was supported by $6.3 million in funding through WCD; $2 million of that came from the Milwaukee Admirals AHL hockey team.

By drawing talented entertainment and engaging conventions to the area, the WCD is striving to make Milwaukee a more attractive place to visit. The upcoming FIRST Robotics Competition, to be held in the Panther Arena, will draw high school students from around the Midwest.

“Along with our partners Visit Milwaukee, we bring in outside tourists, outside event planners, outside clients to come to our great city, attend a convention in the convention center, see Milwaukee and what the great city has to offer,” said WCD CEO Russ Staerkel. “And they come and leave their money, and they go away with how great Milwaukee is.”

Staerkel told WisBusiness.com that in a few months, the Milwaukee Theatre is going to get a new name with a yet-unnamed partner.

“I’ll let the people that purchased the naming rights talk about it, but there’s going to be a great unveiling, and the Milwaukee Theatre is moving forward,” he said.

He pointed to 66 percent increased attendance “in the last couple years” at the theatre as evidence of its growth.

Staerkel references a multitude of local sports teams as a major driver of attention and revenue for Milwaukee. The Admirals, the UW-Milwaukee Panthers, and the women’s roller derby team, the Milwaukee Bruisers, all play a role, he says.

“Those ladies are amazing,” he said. “Come down and watch them rollerskate and do these bouts — it’s like wow, look at what we have. What is that called? That’s called diversity of sports, and we have it.”

He also mentioned the the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team, which just beat Kansas City, and is about to go head-to-head with either Harrisburg or Baltimore in the Eastern Division finals.

“I mean, that’s an outstanding family of traction, and people need to get onboard and say, look, look what we have down there,” Staerkel said.

Listen to a podcast with Russ Staerkel here: http://wisbusiness.com/index.iml?Article=386014