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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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In Marketplace Commentary

The Downtown train of development needs collaboration and big thinking. (PHOTO: Bobby Tanzilo )

In Marketplace Commentary

One vision for a new entertainment and convention district. (PHOTO: Bobby Tanzilo )

Pace of Downtown plans and proposals can leave you breathless


So we have finally seen the report on the possible expansion of the Wisconsin Center, which over the years has had more names than I can even remember.

I've read the thing from top to bottom and not surprisingly, the report recommends that the convention center be expanded at a cost in the neighborhood of $200 million.

Now, I am not a big believer in surveys like this. You tend to wonder how accurate the information is, especially when you see things like a section that talks about the tourist attractions that mentions Miller Park and the Betty Brinn Children's Museum and leaves out the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

If it seems like big projects Downtown are coming at us like spray from a paint gun, you're right. It is obvious that Milwaukee is moving. The only question that really seems to remain is just who is driving this train and where is it going?

Let's try to make just a little bit of sense out of all of this.

There is a Milwaukee Cultural and Entertainment Capital Needs Task Force. This task force, with over 50 members, is supposed to come up with a report about a new arena, an entertainment district Downtown and who knows what else.

Then we have the Wisconsin Center District that runs the convention center, the arena and the Milwaukee Theatre, which might well be the most underused facility in town. There is going to be some new leadership for the theater, which may well include some efforts to actually market the place.

The solution, I'm convinced, is to contract with a booking agent to try and fill dates. The theater is a great place, both for the audience and for performers and it's a shame that it sits empty so often.

Then we have the coming expansion of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Paul Mathews, who runs the place, apparently won't call me back, but the plan is to knock down the decrepit parking lot across the street and replace it with a building that has parking, a restaurant, some commercial space, some meeting space and maybe some office space.

And we have the current auction of The Shops of Grand Avenue that is a moribund piece of property in the heart of the city. Let's hope the new buyers have a sense that the mall should turn into something other than a collection of retailers where nobody shops.

Kind of catches your breath, doesn't it?

Now, I'm pretty sure that none of these decision makers gives two hoots what I think, but looking at things from the outside, I've got a couple of ideas.

The main thing we don't want to have happen is to put these various interests in a ring and ask them to slug it out. There is enough criticism coming from the outside world that we sure don't need them blasting each other.

What needs to happen is that these groups need to settle on some kind of path to agreement, and I've got a guy who can make all kinds of things happen.

Frank Gimbel is a longtime friend and the chairman of the Wisconsin Center District. He is one of the lions of progress in this city and he can teach all the young people a thing or two about how you go about getting stuff done. Hardly anyone in this town is any better at civic accomplishment than Gimbel.

Another thing that has to happen is that someone needs to tell Steve and Greg Marcus that it's too bad, but we are going to build a big hotel on that vacant lot on 4th street right across from the convention center.

I have no idea where the Marcus Corporation gets all its influence, but it has seemingly steadfastly opposed any other hotel development, especially on that vacant piece of land across the street from the Marcus-owned Hilton. Whatever it is, it's been very successful in maintaining its overwhelming position in the Downtown hotel market.

It's high time to stop caving in to those wishes and build another great hotel Downtown.

This city also needs to engage the two guys who just bought the Milwaukee Bucks. Wesley Edens and Mark Lasry are new to this city. They seem ready to commit. And they know how to move quickly and decisively. We can use some of them in this whole exercise.

Finally, all of these people need to think globally. I know there are lots of parochial interests out there. An organization called Common Ground, for example, won't support any public money for a new arena unless an equal amount of money goes for playgrounds and recreational facilities at schools.

It's that kind of thinking that has kept Milwaukee moving at a glacial pace in the past.

There is a babbling brook of progress floating through our city. What we don't need is a bunch of people building little dams here and there to keep that brook from becoming a river.

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