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?
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.