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Developer study: New arena should be part of new 'destination' at Alliant Energy Center
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Developer study: New arena should be part of new 'destination' at Alliant Energy Center


A new multipurpose arena that would replace the aging Dane County Coliseum and new areas for retail, entertainment, dining and hotels are part of a recommended plan for the county that would turn the Alliant Energy Center complex into a $500 million destination development.

The plan was one of three options included in a new study by Hammes Co. that outlined the future options of the complex and its past and present problems that have made it a financial burden for the county.

“It’s a very viable option. We think it gets the campus and the county where it wants to be, which is self-sustaining for the long term. We don’t think the other options have that ability,” said William C. Robinson of Hammes, who along with Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and County Board Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan met with the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board on Monday.

But nobody from Hammes or the County Board briefed County Executive Joe Parisi on the report as of Monday night, according to his chief of staff, Josh Wescott. “We’ve not seen the report or study or have been briefed and will reserve comment until we do see it,” Wescott said Monday night.

Wescott expressed surprise at the study’s existence because he said Hammes was sent a letter on April 28 informing the company that the county had terminated its contract with Hammes. “Clearly they re-emerged somehow,” Wescott added.

The Alliant Energy Center Strategic Design Study Committee, which is chaired by McDonell, is scheduled to review the study Wednesday. McDonell will then brief the County Board. The next step is the development of a master plan, which could use all or some of the Hammes study recommendations, McDonell said.

He added that funding for the master plan, which could take a year to complete, is already in the county budget. He also said he hopes a final decision can be made within five years.

The Hammes study includes no plans, designs or firm cost estimates. “It’s based on our experience on what things cost,” Robinson said.

The recommended plan’s overall cost estimates ranged from $455 million to $507 million. Public funding would cover about $117 million of it, including about $80 million for a new multipurpose arena with 6,000 to 8,000 seats. The rest of the public funding would pay for a 1,000-stall, $25 million parking ramp and $10 million in improvements to Exhibition Hall.

Private development would cover the cost of the rest of the development that will include hotels and other commercial space as well as retail, dining and entertainment areas. It would also include community gathering spaces, a residential area and transportation connections to Downtown Madison.

The best event sites are virtually all-inclusive, Robinson said. “They have their own little world and you don’t have to leave the campus. That’s the model right now, and it’s a trend we see continuing,” he added.

Hammes has a history of such “destination” projects, including the renovated Lambeau Field in Green Bay, the redevelopment of The Edgewater hotel in Madison and the $975 million new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. It’s a partner in the proposed Judge Doyle Square redevelopment in Downtown Madison.

The other options outlined in the study are less costly and make do with existing facilities.

One would use about $9 million of public funding for deferred maintenance and repair of the existing buildings. Some of the parking lots would become versatile green space for parking cars as well as playing fields and other functions.

The second option uses about $80 million in public funding and includes an upgraded Coliseum or new arena and limited pedestrian, transportation and technology upgrades. “There could be some connection upgrades between the buildings. That’s one of the big complaints,” Robinson said. “You have to walk outside and you get wet and you get cold going from venue to venue to venue.”

But McDonell said replacing the 48-year-old Coliseum is a priority because it is no longer self-sustaining and is a big reason why the Alliant Energy Center is losing money. The study showed the Alliant Energy Center had annual net operating deficits between $300,000 and $500,000 in recent years that jumped to $758,000 in 2014.

“Overall it’s losing money and the reserves are completely gone,” McDonell said.

The $1.4 million that Parisi budgeted next year to upgrade the Coliseum are just stopgap repairs that might help lure some musical acts until it can be renovated or razed for a new arena, McDonell said.

“Hopefully we can get some of the metal bands back,” he said. “That’s all that will go to that old building with paint peeling and the bathrooms a mess.”

As it stands today, most baby-boomer rock concerts and ice shows that are big money-makers for arenas skip the Coliseum in favor of sites in Green Bay, La Crosse and Wisconsin Dells, Robinson said. The Kohl Center could draw those types of events but rarely books them, he added.

McDonell said officials from Frank Productions told him that the company is embarrassed by its inability draw any events to Madison. “If there was a better facility, they think, for sure, there would be ice shows and concerts here,” McDonell said.

Another study produced for the county suggested renovating the Coliseum for $50 million. But it would remain a substandard facility with no long-term financial sustainability, Robinson added.

“If we were asked, our opinion would be, ‘If you are going to spend $50 million, you’re better off building a new one than pouring $50 million into that building,’ ” Robinson said. “It would be multipurpose and hold concerts for anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 people. That’s a very profitable segment of the market.”

The other two options in the study offer cheaper fixes for the Alliant Energy Center site that are not sustainable long-term strategies, Robinson said.

The recommended option radically changes parking, which is one of the strengths of the current complex. A $25 million parking ramp with 1,100 stalls and additional parking underneath some of the proposed new buildings would leave the complex an estimated 600 to 800 fewer stalls than what exists today, Robinson said. “You’d have to find some strategies (to find) parking spaces on an adjacent or off site,” he added. “These are all manageable things.”

The World Dairy Expo and Midwest Horse Show — the center’s two biggest shows, both held there annually — would be most affected by the loss of parking spaces. “We have to figure out how to make up that loss (of parking spaces), but we’ll be making significant revenue from this investment the whole year,” McDonell said.

Robinson said the Alliant Energy Center was the only event site he knew of that did not receive any public subsidies such as a room tax. Creative financing, some with the help from the city and the town of Madison, could create new revenue streams and help ease the county’s cost burden by as much as $9 million to $12 million annually, he added.

“For a public investment of $117 million, there’s a decent return on that investment, we feel,” Robinson.

Corrigan said whatever development plan is picked for the site has to be more than just a money-maker for the county.

“We want it to be an area that is an economic engine for Madison ... that would make us a destination. That’s what this is about,” she said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Scott McDonell's title.

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.

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