Community leaders met for a “ribbon cutting” ceremony Wednesday to unveil a newly completed phase of the La Crosse Center renovation and expansion project.
The convention center’s entrance, North Hall exhibit, arena and administrative offices are now complete, with the full project expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“We’re in the home stretch,” said director of the La Crosse Center, Art Fahey, adding that in a “normal year” the event would have been a more traditional, partial “grand opening” rather than a ribbon cutting.
The ceremony, held in one of four segments of the North Hall and decked out in green balloons and ribbon for St. Patrick’s Day with state, county and city representatives in attendance, showcased a turning tide after a hard year of hurdles posed by the pandemic.
“For almost a year we’ve been closed. We saw some light at the end of the tunnel” hosting boys and girls state basketball earlier this month, Fahey said. “Statewide people were hearing about La Crosse and the La Crosse Center.”
“When ground was broken on the expansion project here in 2019, no one, not one of us predicted what was in store for us in 2020,” said Sen. Brad Pfaff. “But they moved forward, they overcame the challenges, and here we are.”
For outgoing La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat, the expansion will serve as a legacy project from his tenure, with officials saying it wouldn’t be possible without his “steady” and “bold leadership.”
“I can’t say enough about how we’ve all come together,” Kabat said. “The people involved in this project have just, they’ve made us all proud. And this is definitely, I think the word ‘legacy’ was used earlier, and I can see this being a legacy for all of us.”
Officials are hopeful that the near completion of the $42 million project will come at the perfect time to help the community bounce back from the pandemic’s economic downturn.
“The newly renovated La Crosse Center will put us on the cutting edge of where we need to be to attract and compete to bring events,” said A.J. Frels, executive director of Explore La Crosse, the region’s tourism bureau. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Frels said that in 2019, La Crosse County was ranked ninth for tourism out of the state’s 72 counties, and that this renovation will help the area compete with cities such as Madison, Rochester, Green Bay and the Wisconsin Dells.
“We know without a doubt that the La Crosse Center was a major contributor to achieving such a lofty number. As our nation and our region recover from COVID-19, the competition to attract and retain conventions will be some of the most fierce we have ever seen,” Frels said. “This beautiful center, the renovation that it’s going under, coupled with outstanding customer service, is just what we need to bring and retain those conventions to our area.”
Even the work on the center so far has helped boost the local economy in some way, said Pete Linsmeier with Kraus-Anderson Construction, the group leading the expansion project. He said that for the past 11 months there have been 58 crew members on site every day — 75% of those employed locally.
“That means those dollars went right back into the community,” Linsmeier said.
But beyond economic growth, officials said they are hopeful that the center also will serve as a boost to the community’s morale.
“You’ve heard what the economic impact of having this facility in La Crosse means, to small business owners, to the hospitality sector, to tourism and construction. But what it also means, quite frankly, to our culture, to our way of life, having the La Crosse Center. It’s hard to put numbers on that,” Pfaff said.
Both Pfaff and Kabat said that they attended one of their first rock concerts at the La Crosse Center in the 80s — Kabat’s was Loverboy — and other events such as graduations and leadership events at the venue throughout the years, emphasizing what the center means to the individuals in the community.
“We all know what we’ve got here in this area. Unbelievable natural landscape, the rolling hills, coulees and valleys. Rivers and streams. Friendly and outgoing personalities, wonderful hospitality,” Pfaff said. “But with the La Crosse Center, we’ve got a place where this all comes together. Where we can show off our Coulee Region pride and let the rest of the world know that this is who we are.”
“I think the sense of optimism, just standing here in this space that was literally a hole not that long ago,” Kabat said.
“I also can’t help but think of the resilience, and what this demonstrates for both the ongoing resilience that we’re all exhibiting each and every day as we’re leading through this pandemic and this economic downturn, as well as the optimism,” he said. “I hope you’re all joining me in just feeling so incredibly hopeful and optimistic today about the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The next phase of the project is to complete the highly anticipated ballroom, which will overlook the Mississippi River just a few yards away, as well as the meeting rooms and the east connector.
Officials said they hope to have the keys officially turned over in November or December of this year.