La Crosse Center Board recommends $49 million renovation project

The La Crosse Center Board voted Wednesday to recommend a renovation design, seen here, which extends over Front Street and Riverside Park.

La Crosse is a terrific host for a growing number of visitors, but our tourism growth is limited until we provide a larger spot for our visitors to enjoy.

That’s why the proposed $49 million expansion of the La Crosse Center deserves support.

We need a larger La Crosse Center not only to attract new conventions and shows, but to maintain the business that already comes to town.

The convention business is competitive and always looking for something fresh. Our competition doesn’t just come from Madison and Milwaukee, but from Wisconsin Dells, Green Bay, Stevens Point and Rochester, Minn.

Nearing 40 years old, the La Crosse Center is still functional but hardly fresh. The 1980 center needs $8 million in maintenance work.

But the center needs more than maintenance. It needs more room for more visitors.

What’s at stake?

Money.

Jobs.

Our status as a top 10 tourism destination in Wisconsin.

The age and limitations of the facility mean it has seen a decline in new business in recent years — something most older civic centers endure.

The proposed expansion will bring growth.

The expansion would add a 17,669-square-foot ballroom with a capacity for 700 to 800 people. (The current ballroom has a capacity of 440.)

And the new ballroom will be a room with a view — a terrific view of the Mississippi River as part of an elevated expansion that will be built above Front Street. That’s a view that other civic centers can’t offer.

The expansion will enhance the wow factor for a visit to La Crosse.

The project also would add 9,000 square feet of meeting space – a crucial element in winning big conferences to town.

The project will provide a much friendlier entrance and a lobby that could host pre-concert events — such as the lobby of the Fine Arts Center at Viterbo University. And it will help visitors navigate the building in a friendlier environment with easier-to-understand routing.

A study estimates the addition alone will bring in 18,000 to 22,000 new tourists each year and provide a $12.1 million annual economic impact, including more than 150 new jobs in the La Crosse area.

Keep in mind, the La Crosse Center already has an estimated annual economic impact of more than $40 million, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

An expanded La Crosse Center also will mean an additional $370,000 in annual hotel room-tax revenue for our region. That’s on top of the $1.4 million annually.

Look for public hearings on the project soon.

Center officials already have listened to feedback from folks downtown, who want to maintain the walkway from Pearl Street to the river. That access will stay open.

The elevated addition will extend into Riverside Park, but not by much — and it’s a part of the park that isn’t heavily used.

Despite what the initial graphic design shows, the center is not going to be turned into a glowing white extraterrestrial hulk. It will be designed to update the look while keeping in character with the rest of our growing, vibrant downtown.

And remember, a keystone for that growing, vibrant downtown is the La Crosse Center.

The center hosts everything from monster trucks to wedding receptions, organic farmers (nearly 3,600) to statewide dart tournaments. In fact, it’s not unusual for three or four events to run simultaneously on any given day at the La Crosse Center.

This weekend, a state pom and dance competition is bringing in between 4,000 and 6,000 people, including 800 to 900 competitors.

That means a lot of overnight stays in our hotels and a lot of meals and shopping downtown and throughout the region.

The $49 million proposed expansion adds $7.2 million to the original cost estimate. (Remember that the city had asked the state for $12 million; instead, it will receive $5 million.)

The center expansion will be paid from a combination of city bonding, the state contribution, room-tax revenue and ticket surcharges. Those ticket surcharges are particularly noteworthy because 25 percent of the people who buy tickets to entertainment events at the center come from out of state.

The center has been in the black for the past 16 or 17 years — roughly since the last expansion in 2000, which added the south hall and its ballroom and meeting space.

In other words, the last expansion has paid dividends.

We’re convinced this expansion will, too.

With approval from the city next month, the project should be finished in the summer of 2020.

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(8) comments

Rick Czeczok

Only if it has an equal payback (pays for itself). If it does not pay for itself it's a bad investment. Unfortunately our council seems good at that. To many of them have been life long government employees and seem to think money grows on trees. I guess it does when you just have to raise taxes (fees) to pay for everything. That doesn't take any brains at all.

Redwall

The builder and contractor get the payback; the taxpayer gets, well, you know.

capedcrusader

And in ten years they will be back saying the facility isn't good enough anymore because it's not making enough money and even older. This is going to be a $50 million dollar band aid with an even bigger problem to fix down the road called "what to do next". Building a new arena at that point will be even more troublesome because it will involve even more land acquisition and much more money. Don't buy into this notion that this is a worthy endeavour for the long run. What this really is in my opinion is a wasted opportunity to build something that would benefit the tax payers of this area but also something that would take us another forty to fifty years into the future with a much better investment. Building on the Mobil oil site would have opened up many more entertainment opportunities on a bigger foot print. It literally could have been an entertainment complex that would have encompassed the arena, a ramp, bigger trade shows, Octoberfest grounds, Farmers Market, concerts, and possibly more diversified development in the surrounding area. I believe this is a missed opportunity and the real possibility of buyers remorse down the road. I would not recommend a project like this primarily based on aesthetics and the belief that people are going to flock to the area to see a refurbished almost 40 year old building that's still not good enough. Mobil Oil should have been made to clean up their site years ago and the planning ahead for this type of development at that time. What's done is done and now we'll find out if this is going to be good for the city and our area or if we really could have done better.

canman

What’s the length of time for payback? If the the city is determined to build, why not start over at the Mobil site and build it right this time. Build all the needed parking and access for trucks to bring the entertainment here. Now to go to an event, you’re looking for parking in an area not designed for traffic volume and pedestrians.

Jobaba

The Mobil site is specifically designed to allow developers and builders to get rich beyond their wildest dreams. Hey, even the 1% deserves their little slice of heaven.

Buggs Raplin

My God, the artist's rendering is an abomination to the park. Please, please, let this not happen.

Redwall

Several issues:

City and County government dont seem to get much for their money in their dealings with contractors. The final bill for this project, including the things people have not anticipated and wish-list items not yet disclosed, plus inevitable cost over-runs will drive the cost to taxpayers even higher.

Second, there is no need to steal park land from City residents to build this boondoggle. When they start with the chain saw on the one hundred year old trees at Riverside Park (obviously planted by much wiser people), it will be a sad day indeed.

We have lost Myrick Park Zoo, they allow the La Crosse Marsh to be incrementally filled in at the edges while planning to take even bigger tracts, and now Riverside Park must be sacrificed in the name of competing with Madison for the sake of greed. Nuts.

The Fibune's editorial is dismissed, it has never met a public spending project it didnt support; they obediently re-print what the project sponsors hand to them, once again doing citizens of La Crosse a dis-service.

Jobaba

Everything written is true. But it would still be true if we just built over the whole park. Green spaces - real ones- are terribly difficult to acquire. Jobs? Tourism? You mean money.

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