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Nov. 17--Downtown Milwaukee's Wisconsin Center would cost $225 million to $275 million to expand, according to a new estimate.

But the state-created agency that operates the convention center can borrow up to roughly $200 million.

So, officials will look at what they can buy for that lower amount -- and whether that less-costly proposal makes financial sense.

The possible expansion was discussed at Friday's board meeting of the Wisconsin Center District.

The district operates the convention center, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Miller High Life Theater. Its operations are financed in part with taxes on Milwaukee County hotel rooms, restaurant tabs and car rentals.

In September, a consultant hired by the center district said the facility should add around 155,000 square feet to 215,000 square feet, with a bigger exhibit hall and ballroom and more meeting rooms.

That expansion, which would likely go north of the Wisconsin Center on its parking lot along W. Kilbourn Ave., would cost $225 million to $275 million.

The expanded facility would draw more events and more people, with visitors spending around $106 million to $116 million annually at hotels, restaurants and other businesses, said Susan Sieger, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Crossroads Consulting Services LLC.

That compares to current average annual spending by Wisconsin Center visitors of $74 million, Sieger told board members.

Also, annual local and state taxes generated by that spending would increase from $9.4 million to a range of $13.6 million to $14.8 million, according to her report.

Board members generally agree that an expansion should occur. Other competing cities are expanding their convention centers, Sieger said.

But the district is also using its tax revenue to help finance the new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

And its ability to borrow additional funds is limited to roughly $200 million, said John Mehan, a managing director at Baird & Co., the district's financial adviser.

There has been some discussion of seeking approval from the state Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker to expand the district's 0.5% restaurant tax to help finance a Wisconsin Center expansion.

But that would "be a hard sell," said Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, a board member and Senate majority leader.

Scott Neitzel, board chair and Walker's administration secretary, agreed.

"My feeling is we have the resources we have," Neitzel said, "and we have to work with those."

That could include raising the district's hotel room tax from 2.5% to 3%, which the board could do without legislative approval. There also is the potential of selling naming rights for the Wisconsin Center.

Along with exploring those revenue possibilities, the district will seek more detailed expansion cost estimates, Neitzel said.

Sieger also said an expanded Wisconsin Center would need a new 1,000-room hotel next to the facility.

City officials haven't yet acted publicly on two competing proposals submitted last year to develop hotels on a vacant parcel at W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. 4th St., near the Wisconsin Center. Both proposals depend on expanding the facility.

The Wisconsin Center opened in two phases, in 1998 and 2000. The third phase, north of the center, has long been planned.

Tom Daykin can be emailed at tdaykin@jrn.com, and followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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