Even as large, revenue-generating events at the Alliant Energy Center are canceled, Dane County is continuing with work to envision the future of the 164-acre campus on Madison’s south side.
The center’s near future could look like an alternative care facility if cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, surge. Gov. Tony Evers announced April 12 the state submitted an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop the alternative care site.
“To have a facility like this in the community is hugely important in good times and in bad, and we’re proud to be part of the response to this crisis,” said Sharon Corrigan, the interim director of the Alliant Energy Center. “We’re also recognizing that we won't always be here unless we are smart about our future.”
A master plan completed in December 2018 for the campus calls for approximately $300 million in public and private investment to create a walkable, environmentally friendly destination with meeting space, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues.
“Everything that existed before the pandemic is true today in that we know there are needs that this facility has that will exist when we begin convening again,” Corrigan said.
The county is starting the major project with plans to redevelop Exhibition Hall — the center’s 255,000 square-foot facility for conventions, meetings and banquets. On Monday, a committee overseeing the redevelopment project heard a revised proposal from Strang, a Madison architecture firm, that keeps the project at one story and an $80 million project cost.
In October 2019, cost estimates for a two-story facility came back at $130 million.
The Alliant Energy Center hosts events such as the Midwest Horse Fair, Brat Fest and CrossFit Games, which bring in visitors and revenue for the county. The campus expansion is expected to draw larger events.
Since the unprecedented public health crisis took hold in Wisconsin, many events, including the horse fair and CrossFit, previously scheduled to occur at the center have been canceled. Upcoming events that are scheduled to take place after the governor’s extended ‘safer at home’ order ends May 26 are to be determined.
Corrigan said the facility will have “ground to make up” in terms of lost revenue.
“These big events are things that help carry us through the year,” Corrigan said.
The loss of major events has far-reaching ripple effects. Downtown Madison Inc. president Jason Ilstrup described how tourism-generating events at places like the Alliant Energy Center and Monona Terrace draw visitors — and new revenue — into hotel rooms, restaurants and shops.
“When those actions are not happening, it can have a crushing effect,” Ilstrup said.
Destination Madison president and CEO Deb Archer called the revenue losses “catastrophic.”
About 14 million people visit Dane County annually and spend more than $1.3 billion in the area, according to Archer. Those expenditures support more than 22,000 jobs and contribute to municipal programs through sales and room taxes.
The future of the convention business in the greater Madison area is largely unknown as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in the county and across the state.
“It’s very complex, and like so many things, so many uncertainties,” Archer said.
As of Tuesday, 387 people in Dane County have been infected by COVID-19 and 20 have died from it. Across the state, 4,620 have tested positive for the disease and 230 people have died from it.
Brent Kyzer McHenry, tapped to be the next director of the Alliant Energy Center, remains optimistic about the future of the campus. Events at the campus are part of the “fabric” of the community, he said.
“People are going to be very interested in returning to as normal as things can be,” said McHenry, whose position is pending on Dane County Board approval. “We’re also a culture of events, especially in Dane County and south central Wisconsin.”
Further, McHenry said the campus could be poised to nimbly adapt to changing public health needs. For example, if event organizers need to move outdoors to allow more social distancing space, the Alliant has large parking lots.
He also pointed to the facility’s potential use as the alternative care center and that the Dane County Farmers’ Market will be using Willow Island for its new drive-thru model.
“As a community facility, we’re serving people in good times and bad,” McHenry said. “We’re really evolving as a center, but we’re also supporting the needs of the community right now.”
The needs of the events, tourism and conference industries will likely change as society slowly emerges from pandemic-induced restrictions. Archer, who is already holding strategy meetings about how to pivot back to booking business, expects the competition for large events to increase once restrictions begin to lift.
“There will be a grab for businesses like crazy,” Archer said.
Corrigan also remained hopeful.
“I think Madison is going to continue to be competitive in that market,” Corrigan said. “It’s a place people have wanted to come to in the past. That’s not going to change.”
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