The Wisconsin Center District (WCD) is a government body created under Wisconsin State Statute in 1994 to fund, build and operate the Midwest Express Center (now Wisconsin Center) in downtown Milwaukee, and continue operating the existing venues now called the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre.
In 2015, under a new State Statute, the Wisconsin Center District was authorized to own and issue bonds for a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. Today WCD owns the Fiserv Forum, but the facility is operated, maintained and managed by the Bucks organization.
Not a unit of state, county or city government, WCD is instead a semi-autonomous municipality called a “district,” meaning its leaders are appointed by elected officials, and it can issue bonds and collect taxes within strict limits established by statute.
The mission of the Wisconsin Center District: to maintain, and continuously build, our professional reputation in the convention, entertainment and sporting events industry on all levels, both locally and nationally; to present first class facilities in the twenty-first century; to provide the most effective use of space for our clients by utilizing the collective talents of all Wisconsin Center District employees; and to create and sustain jobs, income, and prosperity in the Greater Milwaukee community.
Under the new statute and the Wisconsin Center District bylaws, WCD is governed by an unpaid, seventeen-member Board of Directors appointed by the Governor, Milwaukee County Executive, City of Milwaukee Mayor and City of Milwaukee Common Council President. The current Wisconsin Center District Board of Directors consists of:
Chairman: Mr. James Kanter, ACT Dental
Alderman Robert Bauman, City of Milwaukee
Mr. Joel Brennan, Wisconsin Secretary of Administration
Alderwoman Milele Coggs, City of Milwaukee
Mr. Grady Crosby, Johnson Controls
Mayor Kathy Ehley, City of Wauwatosa
Senator Scott Fitzgerald, Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader
Mark Flaherty, Jackson Street Holdings
Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, City of Milwaukee Common Council President
Representative Gordon Hintz, Wisconsin State Assembly Minority Leader
Senator LaTonya Johnson, Wisconsin State Senate
Scott Manske, Milwaukee County Comptroller
Mr. Greg Marcus, Marcus Corp.
Mr. Martin Matson, City of Milwaukee Comptroller
JoAnne Sabir, Sherman Phoenix LLC
Representative Joe Sanfelippo, Wisconsin State Assembly
Omar Shaikh, SURG Restaurant Group
Mr. Marty Brooks, President & CEO
WCD receives no property tax money or Federal, State or local subsidy. Its operations are funded by operating revenues. Special sales taxes on hotel rooms, on prepared food and drinks sold in restaurants and taverns, and on car rentals repay a $185 million bond issue that funded the Midwest Express Center project, and provide funding to VISIT Milwaukee. None of these tax revenues are used to fund WCD operations.
Within the boundaries of Milwaukee County, WCD collects 2.5% on rooms, 3% on car rentals, and 0.5% on food and beverage sales. It also receives a 7% hotel room tax formerly collected by the City of Milwaukee. In January, 2011, the county-wide hotel room tax increased from 2% to 2.5%; the increase was requested by hoteliers to provide additional funding for Visit Milwaukee.
This financial plan is supported by political and business leaders – in particular, Wisconsin’s hotel and restaurant associations – as an investment in economic growth. Among U.S. cities, Milwaukee is rare in that its visitor taxes are used only for visitor-oriented marketing, facilities and services.
WCD’s diverse, skilled staff of about 285 full- and part-time employees markets and maintains the facilities, books and services events, and helps promote and produce them. Visit Milwaukee solicits major convention and trade show bookings, and WCD books smaller meetings as well as sports, entertainment and consumer shows. Levy Restaurants, WCD’s exclusive food service provider, books banquet, luncheons and receptions.
A wide variety of private businesses and entrepreneurs ranging from event planners and decorators to florists and specialty food providers do business in WCD facilities, or deliver products and services to WCD clients.
In March 2017, the WCD Board received an independent review of current operations and recommendations for opportunities to improve WCD facilities. Barrett Sports Group and Crossroads Consulting Services shared an analysis that highlights strengths in operational excellence at WCD while making recommendations to mirror best practices in the convention, entertainment and sporting events industry. The WCD Board hired Barrett and Crossroads to conduct the study in 2016. The strategic plan provides the WCD board with insights on the district’s facilities.
WCD exists to support Milwaukee’s economy by attracting visitors and wealth to the community. In addition to the economic impact of visitor spending for rooms, meals, transportation and entertainment, WCD and its caterer, Levy Restaurants, help cultivate small and disadvantaged business development through “third-party vendor” contracts for specialty foods and other contracts for everything from construction services to printing. WCD’s success in fueling local and regional prosperity is measurable in many ways, including the opening of some 1,500 new downtown hotel rooms since 1996. WCD has also helped stimulate community pride and economic development on the downtown, neighborhood and metropolitan levels.
The Wisconsin Center District strives to provide safe and fully accessible facilities and respectful service to all visitors, regardless of disability or special needs. We work closely with the Milwaukee County Office for Persons with Disabilities and other agencies to ensure our venues and policies meet or exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, and keep pace with evolving standards and technology.
The Wisconsin Center District is committed to minimizing waste, pollution, and its carbon footprint. Among the energy and water conservation, recycling and waste reduction initiatives at the Wisconsin Center, UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre:
- All-new, high-efficiency HVAC system installed in Miller High Life Theatre during 2001-03 renovation;
- UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena’s hot water steam converter replaced with high-efficiency unit;
- HVAC controls recalibrated and re-commissioned in the administrative offices and meeting rooms, exhibit halls, the ballroom and other areas of the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Wisconsin Center, resulting in 10-15% energy use reductions;
- Preventive maintenance and repairs to HVAC dampers and seals in the Wisconsin Center and UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena;
- HVAC static pressure in the Wisconsin Center adjusted to positive vs. negative air flow to avoid taking in unheated outdoor air in winter, uncooled air in summer;
- HVAC set point sensors in all three buildings reset and recalibrated to 68-72° f; deviations require approvals.
- Hot water sensors in the systems automatically recalibrate according to outside air temperatures;
- Thermostats in fire towers, stairways and other unoccupied spaces in all three facilities set to absolutely minimize unnecessary heating and cooling of unused spaces. Can be temporarily reset to meet client needs.
- High-efficiency, variable speed drives and water circulation pumps installed in Wisconsin Center HVAC systems, resulting in 10%-12% energy-use reductions;
- Motion-sensor lighting controls in restrooms and elevators in all three facilities, reducing electricity use approximately 35%-60%.
- Ongoing relamping and fixture replacement in all three facilities, including signage and message boards, to utilize high-pressure sodium, compact fluorescent, led and other high-efficiency light sources.
- Ongoing utility cost trend analysis includes monitoring and regular review of steam, electricity, gas and water consumption, to help identify where greater efficiencies can be achieved.
- “Low flow” restroom fixtures installed during initial Wisconsin Center and Miller High Life Theatre construction projects;
- Restroom fixtures in all three facilities controlled by motion sensors and automatic shutoffs;
- ‘Metal “fills” in Wisconsin Center HVAC cooling towers replaced with high-efficiency units, reducing the use of both water and chemicals.
Recycling & Waste Reduction:
- 100% or high-recycled-content and fully recyclable or compostable disposable food service items (e.g., sandwich wrappers, flatware, cups, etc.) used by Levy Restaurants in all WCD facilities;
- Comprehensive, single-stream solid waste recycling implemented in cooperation with Waste Management, Inc. and Levy Restaurants.
- Silver certification under Waste Management’s Green Leader™ program.
A report from Waste Management shows how much of WCD’s waste stream was diverted from landfills between January and October, 2014:
Note that the summary does NOT include e-waste (computers, media, electronic devices, power supplies, etc.), batteries, fluorescent lamps, or pallets, all of which we recycle, sell or donate before they ever enter the recorded waste stream!
The history of our facilities dates to the opening of the Milwaukee Auditorium in 1909, and our heritage goes back even further, to the erection of a public market house on the site in 1867, followed by the opening of the Industrial Exposition Building at the same location in 1881.
In fact, Milwaukee’s very name is thought to derive from the Ojibwe for “gathering place by the waters,” signifying its centuries-old role as a hospitable place where people of many Indian nations came together to conduct trade, learn about new technology, politic and socialize – just like conventions today!
When originally opened as the Midwest Express Center in 1998, the Wisconsin Center was designed with a Phase III expansion in mind, extending to the north to Kilbourn Avenue. In this or a fourth phase, the center would ultimately to be connected to the Arena and Auditorium. However, this expansion was delayed by the tumultuous economic and political currents of the 21st century’s opening decade.
In 2013, based in part on the 2012 Economic Impact Analysis, the Wisconsin Center District commissioned a feasibility study outlining the District’s competitive needs and proposing a modest expansion of 60,000 feet of new exhibit space, a 14,000 square-foot junior ballroom, and additional meeting rooms. This study was released on May 14, 2014.
Because this expansion initiative coincided with a separate community discussion about erecting a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks NBA franchise, the study went further in proposing a master plan to redevelop the downtown corridor between Vel R. Phillips Avenue and 6th Street as a pedestrian-friendly sports & entertainment district. The plans for the new arena project ultimately resemble this proposal.
This feasibility analysis, combined with the above operational assessment, led to a more detailed benchmarking report, expansion recommendations, and conceptual renderings:
In April, 2019, the District received results of a commissioned Tax Projection Study, which led to several concrete steps in preparation for launching a Phase III expansion project.
Pursuing self-financing in lieu of new hospitality taxes, WCD issued an RFP seeking a lender to administer a bond issue. Morgan Stanley was chosen.
The State of Wisconsin agreed to assume “moral obligation” to guarantee expansion project bonds in the event of default by the District, ensuring better borrowing rates.
Increasing executive authority to expedite the project, the WCD Board resolved unanimously in August to raises the cap on the value of project-related agreements which the President and CEO and Board Chairman are authorized to enter into, to $1 million. A revised project timeline also issued in August projects a groundbreaking in early 2021, and completion by early 2023.