This is how it begins: Local leaders in Milwaukee commissioned a study examining whether the city’s convention center is up to snuff. Surprise, surprise, reports Bruce Murphy at Urban Milwaukee: Hunden Strategic Partners, a consulting firm that loves convention centers, says Milwaukee really ought to be pumping a bunch of public money into expanding its convention facilities and a new arena for its NBA franchise, the Bucks. Oh, and a large publicly subsidized hotel wouldn’t hurt either. This is the same outfit that did the study for Kansas City’s Power and Light District, which has turned into a notorious money pit for the city.
Does Milwaukee really need to double the size of its convention center and chip in for a 1,000-room hotel? Murphy does a good job highlighting some weaknesses in the report:
“The cost and investment of keeping the Bucks is one worth working hard for, as the loss of a team can be devastating to the downtown economy,” Hunden warns, but offers no evidence whatsoever of this contention. The clear consensus among economists is that there is no economic spinoff from such investments, and Hunden never addresses this.
As for the need to increase the convention center, its own data undercuts that recommendation. For starters, the study finds Milwaukee’s convention attendance has increased by nearly 130 percent between 2007 and 2014, while convention hotel room nights increased 26 percent during the same period. So the convention center has done pretty well in recent years.
As for what a bigger convention center might accomplish, the study’s analysis of the Wisconsin Center “suggests that the convention-generated business downtown is minimal. The sales generated by those coming downtown from the suburbs (and beyond) for major events, especially during the summer, is a significant impact on downtown.”
In short, the convention center is not bringing much business downtown. So why should the city invest more money in it?