The La Crosse Center renovation could cost millions more than the $42 million budgeted for the significant expansion of the city-owned convention center, according to preliminary estimates presented Thursday to the La Crosse Common Council.
The design favored by both the La Crosse Center Board and downtown businesses could cost as much as $55 million, according to estimates put together by Gensler and ISG, working with Kraus-Anderson Construction. Architect Eric Stultz of Gensler presented several options to the council, including a bare-bones design that met the $42 million threshold, as well as $45 million, $49 million and $55 million options.
After a September public input meeting with downtown neighbors and residents, the La Crosse Center Board and the architects focused on designs that put the ballroom up in the air on the second story, overlapping Front Street and Riverside Park.
The most expensive design calls for a 17,000-square-foot ballroom and another 17,000 square feet of meeting rooms, which follows the trend for what event organizers are looking for in a convention center.
“You have an event in there and then as soon as they’re done in there, they break off into the meeting rooms, so the meeting rooms need to hold about the number of people as were just in the ballroom,” Stultz said.
The design also includes a main entrance to the La Crosse Center from Riverside Park, which would allow easy access to the new ballroom from the park to take full advantage of the river views and encourage events to use both facilities.
“One of the things this does design-wise for the building is it gives it a nice new look,” Stultz said.
However, that design comes in at $55 million, or $372 per square foot.
The second option eliminates some meeting rooms and shrinks others, and limits the entryway facing the river.
“We took that same entry area off of the park, and we scaled it down some,” Stultz said.
It keeps the hallway wrapping around the building and removes some of the meeting rooms, leaving them with 12,000 square feet. That would bring down the cost to $49 million, or $419 per square foot.
The third and fourth options were similar — costing $45 million and $42 million, respectively — with both cutting significant amounts of programming, leaving a new ballroom, but having only 5,800 square feet of new meeting rooms.
The connection to the park is reduced to a stairway, rather than a new entrance, and removes plans for expansions on the other sides of the building. It also removes plans for a lobby on the north end of the building.
Removing the facade enclosure around the building could bring the price down to $42 million, including $8 million in deferred maintenance.
The city has set aside $37 million, including $35 million in bonding, for the project, and the state agreed to contribute $5 million, bringing the total budgeted to $42 million.
Council member Jessica Olson, who represents the council on the La Crosse Center Board, said the city may need to look at increasing funding as the project moves forward.
“The more you pare down, the more expensive it gets to build,” Olson said, referring to the way the cost per square foot increases the size of the expansion decreases.
The higher the cost per square foot, the harder it is to pay off the project, she said.
“It’s starting to look like (if we) try and stay within that $42 million budget that was put out, we’re not going to get a lot of bang for our buck,” Olson said.
A larger investment up front could “pay off in spades” 10 to 15 years from now, she said.
The city’s design team is in the process of evaluating the economic impact of each option — something Council President Martin Gaul said would be key when the council makes a decision.
“I believe there is a will here to do this right,” Gaul said.
Whether there will also be a will to increase funding will depend on what the financial impact of spending more money up front would be, he added.
Council member Doug Happel added that the council needs to keep in mind that there are other large projects — including work on the city’s fire stations — coming up as well.