Tourism and business leaders in Appleton hope to build a 30,000-square-foot expo center behind the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel to attract larger conventions to the region. Similarly, leaders in Green Bay hope to expand the KI Convention Center by 30,000 square feet.
So, what happens if both communities move forward with their projects?
Everybody probably wins, proponents say. Even if both projects move ahead, they’ll face competition from larger convention centers such as the Monona Terrace in Madison, the Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin Dells and the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee. Project advocates say there’s room for everyone. In fact, the construction and expansion of larger facilities around the state is part of what is driving the project in Appleton.
Starting in 1997, there was something of a convention center boom: The 250,000-square-foot Monona Terrace opened in 1997, followed by the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee in 1998 and the KI Center in Green Bay in 2000. The La Crosse Center was expanded in 2000, the Kalahari resort in Wisconsin Dells in 2000 and the Chula Vista in 2006, said Lynn Peters, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The Radisson Paper Valley was just a huge piece of the convention pie all around the state,” she said. “That changed during the period when all of these things opened. Events and meetings that had squeezed into the Radisson suddenly had the chance to spread out.”
A 2008 feasibility study funded by the Fox Cities Chamber and the Fox Cities CVB showed that many of those meetings and conventions would return to the area if there was enough room for them, Peters said. While the Paper Valley has lots of meeting space, it lacks a large space where a trade show can set up. That’s keeping the area from getting its share of meetings, she said.
“It’s an economic development thing – do we want that business in
our community, or do we want it in
La Crosse?” Peters said.
The non-profit organization Fox Cities Exhibition Center Inc. proposes to build the new facility across the street from the Radisson with a walkway connecting the two structures. The current estimated cost of the facility is between $18 million and $20 million, and may be funded by a combination of several sources, including room tax and private funding.
The study said the expansion to the Appleton center will work even if Green Bay also moves forward with its expansion to the KI Center, Peters said.“We compete with them now, we’ll compete with them in the future,” she said.
Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt agreed, adding that a little competition isn’t a bad thing – it helps everyone work harder to provide better services. Green Bay also conducted a feasibility study on the expansion of the KI center and also took into account the possibility of Appleton building the expo center downtown, as well as larger centers out of the area, and found that the project would be sustainable.
“There’s enough business out there for all of us to be successful,” Schmitt said. “We’re going after a certain niche.”
Very large conventions that need a great deal of space will still find their way to Madison and Milwaukee, he said, but Green Bay (as well as Appleton) hopes to attract the mid-sized meetings and conventions that are simply looking for some room to stretch their legs.
“This project is all about economic impact, job creation, bringing new revenue to the community, as well as securing the base business we have now,” Schmitt said. “We have conventions that have grown, and we want to be able to accommodate them in the future.”
Bill Geist, an industry consultant and president of Zeitgeist Consulting in Sun Prairie, said in February at the annual Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau Tourism Breakfast that convention centers weren’t sure things in a volatile economy, but Madison has seen an “exceptional impact on the city.”
“My point was that if a city does its homework and performs an honest feasibility study (and the results are positive), convention centers can still have significant impacts on a community,” Geist said.
There’s also always a risk that the feasibility studies have overestimated demand, he cautioned. But the risk of not proceeding – assuming the feasibility studies are spot-on – is that “both destinations will continue to lose convention and event business to larger destinations – and that means less new money entering their local economies,” Geist said. “And, that means fewer jobs, less tax revenue available to local government and less spending in area restaurants, retail establishments and hotels.”
While Madison and Milwaukee have larger venues, Geist pointed out, it also costs conventioneers more to meet in those cities. At the same time, he said, air service to those cities is better.
“Every destination has its strengths and weaknesses … and each has clients that love what they can do for them,” Geist said. “And, each of these proposals targets a specific need for each destination. Thus, I don’t see these expansions as necessarily addressing the same markets.”
To move forward, Green Bay’s KI center is asking the Brown County Board to pledge room tax funds toward the project and Schmitt hopes that will trigger a variety of funding sources both public and private. In Appleton, the land for the project is currently owned by Outagamie County, which must approve a sale.
Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson said Appleton city leaders made a strong argument for the project and he believes the region can easily sustain both the Appleton and Green Bay convention center projects. The two regional airports help keep airline costs down through increased competition, for example. And the impact of northeast Wisconsin’s role in the state’s economy shouldn’t be discounted.
“I think perhaps one thing people assume is this is a secondary or tertiary market, and that is not true at all,” Nelson said. “This is a very important and fast-growing part of the state, and to the extent that I can help foster that economic development and growth, I want to be a part of that.”
Nelson said the region can attract visitors here instead of Madison or Milwaukee because of what it has to offer.
“This is a wonderful place to live, to raise a family, to start a business, to retire and of course to visit,” he said. “Before we can tell that story and bring people to the community, we have to have the capacity to take on these conventions and conferences.”