By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 20, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Although the Baird Center expansion reached “substantial completion” – meaning that it’s fit for use and can be entered without protective gear – on March 29, that doesn’t mean work isn’t continuing on the finishing touches, as we saw Monday when we visited for a peek at the new $456 million convention facility.

So many interesting angles.

The center’s expansion will host a ribbon cutting ceremony and a Grand Opening Gala on May 16 and two days later, the public will be invited inside for a look from 1 until 5 p.m.

Then, the first rentals – events by the Boys & Girls Clubs and the U.S. Ice Rink Association – arrive.

In the meantime, systems are being tested, final inspections are taking place and punch list items are being completed.

“We’re in a good place,” says Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks. “It on schedule, nothing that wasn’t anticipated. I come over a couple times a day and from the morning to the afternoon it changes. Art goes up, more signage comes in.”

The center – which opened in a backward-looking postmodern building at Phillips and Wisconsin in 1998 – hosts conventions, trade and consumer shows, banquets, business meetings, public entertainment shows and other events.

This new expansion is located between Wells, Kilbourn, Phillips and 6th and replaces an earlier convention center.

The striking new addition – designed by Milwaukee’s Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA) and Atlanta-based tvsdesign and built by Gilbane and CD Smith – adds additional exhibition hall space, 24 meeting rooms (for a new total of 52); 400 indoor parking spaces in a cleverly hidden ramp; six loading docks (for a total of 22); another kitchen; a rooftop ballroom with great views and space for 2,000 (that can also be carved into smaller meeting spaces as needed) and outdoor terraces, including one at the corner of Kilbourn and Phillips that will have a giant video board.

Event manager office
The event manager's office has a view over the new exhibition hall (pictured below).
the new hallX

Exhibition space will jump from just under 189,000 square feet to 300,000.

“That was one of the project mandates as directed by one of the studies that we had done over the years to determine not just what do we think we need, but what is required in order for the city to have a real swing at bigger conventions,” Wisconsin Center Vice President of Marketing and Communications Sarah Maio told me last year when I visited for this project update.

“That number was a big threshold.”


That enlarged footprint – with 1.3 million square feet in total – allows the center to host multiple simultaneous or overlapping events.

From the outside, the glass and steel building – with its sharp, contemporary edges – is a sight to behold. It feels huge and bright and modern and especially at night, when it’s illuminated and its many windows glow, it’s a beacon.

Hopefully, the kind of beacon that draws convention business.

Once the doors swing open on the new center, WCD, which operates it, expects the building to attract more that $12.6 billion in total spending in Wisconsin across the next three decades and create more that $150 million in incremental state income.

Expanding the convention center allows the Wisconsin Center District to book larger, more prominent events, helping fill Milwaukee hotels, restaurants and bars, and bringing more business to local shops.

In addition to changing the face of Kilbourn Avenue, the new center has sustainability upgrades like a solar roof, stormwater management system, bird-friendly glass and an on-site food digester.

Inside, it’s even more impressive, with a soaring atrium and balconies that create interesting vistas from every angle.

There’s artwork everywhere, including murals and paintings on the walls, a multi-story cascading water installation inspired by the Great Lakes, hanging sculptures and more.


The ballroom has a beautiful undulating ceiling and furniture in communal areas is welcoming and colorful, as well as plentiful.

There’s even a space that had been tabbed as a naming rights sponsor space, but Baird didn’t need it and gave it back and now it has a variety of pods that allow for private conversations and phone calls.

Next to it is a space, accessible from both the street and the center, that will host a tourist information center operated by VISIT Milwaukee. Thanks to the exterior door, this tourist I can be open even when the center is closed.

tourist center
The VISIT Milwaukee tourism center.
The grab 'n' go.

There’s a self-serve grab and go snack bar that will be accessible whenever there are people in the building, and of course there are many flexible spaces that can change shape and size to accommodate a variety of uses.

The smaller, covered balcony.
A view from the top floor, open-air terrace.

Most striking, perhaps, are two open-air balconies. A smaller one at the corner of Kilbourn and Phillips is covered and has a video board. A larger terrace on the top floor wraps around two sides of the building and offers really wonderful views.

The latter has permanent fixed planters but also moveable ones that can be reconfigured to created patio areas for specific rentals. Both have heated pavements to prevent ice and snow accumulation.

Some of the artwork that's been installed.
hanging artworkX

The natural light that brightens pretty much the entire interior (though there are room darkening shades for events that prefer or require them) is a new trend in convention centers.

“The way people attend meetings and conventions has changed,” Brooks says. “Years ago, convention centers were boxes like casinos. They didn't want you looking outside. They wanted you focused on what's happening inside.”

Now, a facility like the Baird Center looks more like a vibey, modern hotel, minus the guest rooms. It feels more like a place you want to be and less like a sensory deprivation chamber your employer paid to fly you to.


Even the main staircase integrates seating (as at the Mitchell Library), with outlets to accommodate folks working on laptops, cell phones and other devices.

Some of the decor in the new building has also been retrofitted into the older building so that once inside, the experience is seamless. The 1998 building has gotten signage, carpeting and lighting to match its new wing.

The space is also more inclusive, with sensory rooms that have special lighting and textured wall surfaces, nursing mothers’ rooms, a first aid room with an adult changing table, and all-gender restrooms available for clients, guests and employees.

Restroom signs are magnetic, so they can be moved around and men’s rooms have a retractable wall to hide the urinals if more women’s restrooms are required for specific events.

That inclusivity was also reflected in construction contracts let for the project, according to Brooks.


The Baird Center exceeded its business inclusion goal by more than 11 percent, contracting with 25.3% minority-owned businesses (25% goal), 16.5% women-owned businesses (5% goal) and 1% disabled-veteran-owned businesses (1% goal).

Similarly, the onsite workforce included 47.9% Residence Preference Program (RPP) workers – those living in the city’s most underserved ZIP codes – (40% goal), 4.5% women (5% goal), 1.2% disabled veterans (1% goal) and 42% minority workers (25% goal).

“I couldn’t be more proud of the work that’s been done to make this project inclusive, sustainable and diverse,” Brooks says. “Thanks to the aggressive recruitment efforts made by our construction manager, Gilbane | Smith, This project was truly built for Milwaukee, by Milwaukee.”

And to think, due to the pandemic, the expansion might not ever have happened. Much preliminary work was done in the summer of 2019, including hiring architects. On March 6, 2020, the WCD staff presented renderings to its board and suggested that at the next month’s board meeting, there should be a vote to approve the project.

This cascading water feature should be activated soon.

“And then everything stopped,” Brooks recalls. “Between that week in March and April 2, there was a lot of soul searching. From the (Wisconsin Center) District standpoint, the staff, our support for this vision never wavered ... supported by consultants, outside third parties, who said that this too shall pass and now's the time to do it.

“Because as a factor of the way the financing is looked at, they do a three-year look back on your financials and getting the financing secured in ‘20, they were looking at ‘17, ‘18, ‘19, and 2019 was our best year ever. If we had waited, they would've used ‘20, which was a catastrophic financially. That’s not to say we couldn't have gotten it done, but we would be probably talking now about getting financing. (We’d be) at least four years behind. It's played out better than we expected.”

For more on the project, visit and for more on the center, go to

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.