FILE -- La Crosse Center

The proposed $45 million renovation and expansion to the La Crosse Center would be a boon to the entire region, La Crosse Center board chairman Brent Smith and director Art Fahey said Monday.

“It just isn’t the city of La Crosse,” Smith said. “This is really a regional impact that the La Crosse Center has.”

The La Crosse Center Board is asking the city to contribute $35 million for the project, which would add a 40,000-square-foot raised ballroom enclosed in glass on the back of the building and renovate the lobby and hallways to make it more welcoming and visitor-friendly in a trio of resolutions to go before the La Crosse Common Council June 9.

While Fahey is still finalizing the numbers, he estimated Monday the economic impact of the renovation to be between $16 million to $48 million per year based om both day-attendees and people who stay overnight in the area to visit the La Crosse Center for events. The city-owned convention center hosts more than 200 events a year.

“It’s an amazing diversity of events and people who use the center, and I think the community has to realize how many things we do,” Smith said.

Fahey added that while the city residents primarily see the conventions and concerts, the convention center plays host to graduations, weddings and community events.

“It’s not just about conventions, it’s not just about concerts, it’s about our community,” Fahey said. “Being a place where people can go, be proud of and use the facility.”

The La Crosse Center is one of the few city-run convention centers in the area to make its home city money. Its ledger has been positive since its previous $14 million expansion in 2000.

However, Fahey is hearing from event-runners and other users about the state of the facility, which has been called dated, sterile and difficult to navigate.

“We have to redo a lot of things within the building for upkeep. Our clients have told us that and we think it’s true,” Smith said.

The traffic flow around the building will be improved, as well as the lobby, but the board hopes to bring a wow-factor to really compete in the national market for events.

Although the designs are not yet final, the proposal would take full advantage of what makes La Crosse unique: its river views.

“People who have that view rave about it … It’s something that brings people to our building,” Smith said.

The board decided on an additional ballroom because of the success of the one built in 2000, which brings in a variety of events compared to the concrete floors and walls of other areas of the center.

“It opens us up to a very different clientele,” Fahey said.

Fahey believes the addition will make the best use of the venue they have, allowing the La Crosse Center to host more small events at the same time, with hallways leading to each area that would keep them separated.

The project calls for the city to bond for $35 million, which would be paid back using hotel room tax dollars, ticket surcharges and other city funds. The La Crosse Center board also plans to ask the Wisconsin Building Commission for $10 million in funding for the project. The commission recently contributed to a performing-arts project in Eau Claire.

Smith and Fahey said the timing was right for an expansion, in part due to the addition of 500 hotel rooms downtown through the four new hotel developments, but mostly because the convention center is losing its competitive edge against other facilities and cities that have made more recent improvements.

“For us to be able to compete against the Green Bays, the Stevens Points, the Wisconsin Dells, we need to do this now,” Smith said.

If approved, the project could be completed as soon as 2018.

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Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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