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La Crosse Center keeps heart of downtown beating

From the Special report: Celebrating the success of downtown La Crosse series
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A $42 million renovation and expansion of the La Crosse Center will provide the facility with better access to the Mississippi River and Riverside Park.

Depending on where you begin measuring, The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor is less than 300 feet from the La Crosse Center. Buzzard Billy’s Restaurant is not much farther. Matter of fact, the arena and convention center’s marketing materials say 70 specialty shops and 23 restaurants are within walking distance.

Those businesses are simultaneously assets and beneficiaries of the La Crosse Center, which rose from a stretch of sandy land along the Mississippi riverfront in 1980. The center doubled in size in 2000 and is slated for $42 million in renovations and expansion to be completed by 2018.

The project has drawn state support.

“This project not only serves the people of La Crosse, but the tri-state area of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota,” Gov. Scott Walker said in February announcing $5 million in state funding for the center. “Every year, the La Crosse Center hosts more than 400,000 guests and more than 200 events. The expansion and renovation of the center will inevitably attract more guests as well as businesses and organizations hoping to host their events at the center, which in turn drives local economic development.”

The balance of the cost will come from the city, hotel room tax and ticket facility fees.

“The La Crosse Center is its own economic driver,” La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vicki Markussen said. “Every dollar brought in through an event at the La Crosse Center has a ripple effect to area hotels, restaurants, caterers, beverage suppliers and more. When the Center is vibrant with activity, the entire downtown and beyond feels it. That’s a tremendous asset for any community to have.”

In 2016, the La Crosse Center directly drew in $4.5 million in revenue, according to its income statement ending Dec. 31, 2016. However, a recent report from La Crosse County puts the center’s annual economic impact on the local economy at $40 million.

The county’s economy benefited from direct visitor spending of $248 million in 2016, an increase of 5 percent over 2015, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

Radisson Hotel

This 1978 aerial photo of the downtown La Crosse riverfront was taken just before the official groundbreaking of Harborview Plaza. The multi-million dollar development included the corporate center for G. Heileman Brewing Co. (marked with an X in the photo), the Radisson Hotel (which opened in August 1980) and the La Crosse Center.

The development and impact of the La Crosse Center can be followed in three stages, the center’s director Art Fahey said, beginning with its construction in 1980 under the leadership of La Crosse Mayor Pat Zielke. That was accompanied by the construction of the adjacent Radisson Hotel.

The La Crosse Center was turning away enough events by the end of the 1990s that the city doubled its size in 2000. About the same time, the Holiday Inn was built next door, Fahey said.

Then came the recent boom that has added 450 hotel rooms to downtown La Crosse, just ahead of the planned second expansion.

“The return on investment and impact on downtown La Crosse is immeasurable for a number of reasons,” city of La Crosse Director of Planning Jason Gilman said.


The La Crosse Center was the site of the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships in March.

“It is in the heart of the downtown,” he said, “allowing attendees to spill into the downtown after events, creating a direct economic impact on the highest density of tax investment (public and private) and commerce in the region and western Wisconsin (La Crosse’s downtown), which in turn makes the city more economically sustainable.”

The state Tourism Department reports that employment linked to tourism increased in La Crosse County about 3.7 percent from 2015 to 2016, rising from 4,123 jobs to 4,274. Corresponding cumulative labor income rose from $98.9 million to $106.5 million or 7.62 percent.

“The Chamber saw the need for a convention hall in the 1950s when we lobbied for and then helped manage the Mary E Sawyer Auditorium,” Markussen said. “People needed and wanted a place to gather. Convention centers create communities by jointly cheering on sports teams, dancing to music, or celebrating. The La Crosse Center took us to the next level. Its expansion will take us to the next level of quality events that capture dollars locally but also attracts outside visitors and dollars as well.”


Players compete in the 34th annual Stansfield Vending Dart Tournament at the La Crosse Center, an event that draws hundreds of competitors every year.

The La Crosse Center promotes area businesses as a matter of course. In its marketing for event organizers, it describes its location as “in Historic Downtown La Crosse on the Mississippi, near Riverside Park” and “within walking distance of 70 specialty shops, 23 restaurants and abundant night life.”

The marketing materials also have lists with contact information and addresses of local businesses, including 15 lodging options, 10 caterers, and a sampling of the restaurants. Maps included also show how to get to places such as the Village Mall.

The special memories and personal connections made through events at the La Crosse Center contribute to return visits to the city, Gilman said.


The La Crosse Center is the host of the annual WACPC State Dance Championships.

Those relationships are built over a wide variety of interests. Between the concerts, monster truck rallies, professional wrestling and major college and high school sports tournaments, the La Crosse Center brings a regular stream of visitors to the community through smaller-profile events.

Those events — such as conventions, banquets, meetings and weddings — fly under the radar for most people, Fahey said. But as the center keeps busy hosting events, downtown benefits. Responses to satisfaction surveys sent out by center management support that.

“We heard many positive comments about the convention and the facility,” Art Mason of the La Crosse Lions Club wrote in a survey after its May event that drew about 580 people. “Space was super for our needs. Staff were great to work with. We have one of the best facilities for conventions and the location near bars, restaurants, stores and the river is great. Thank you for taking care of our needs and helping us have a great convention.”

Said Gilman: “It is an incubator for innovation, economic development, tourism, education and a strengthener for the city’s social fabric. National conferences like the MOSES conference, or nationally recognized musicians, or conferences offering a cutting edge view of a particular subject or even the graduation ceremonies and weddings provide both quantitative (local spending, hotel stays, investment) and qualitative (social bonds, inclusiveness, emotional connections to place, memories, health impacts).”

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