College basketball fans, National Squirrel Association members, circus goers, proud parents of graduates, country music fans and more will all gather at La Crosse Center in the coming weeks.
These are just a few of the upcoming events taking place at the La Crosse Center since it completed its $42 million expansion last winter.
The expansion – which added a new ballroom and river views, a rooftop terrace and a plethora of other facelifts – could not have come at a better time and helped mark a comeback from the pandemic that kept the center dark for months.
But this year is proving to be just the launch pad for La Crosse Center.
According to Art Fahey, director of the La Crosse Center, the center is hosting about 25 conventions this year and is expected to host 36 next year and nearly 40 conventions in 2024.
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“That’s a significant leap from what we’ve seen,” Fahey said. “And the reception was fantastic. It’s easily one of the best facilities you’ll find in the state of Wisconsin, so people are coming from all over to come.”
The new and improved premises have enabled the center to attract new events and therefore new crowds. Fahey said it’s garnering attention from groups locally, state and regional, and even nationally.
“We’re starting to see things that are looking at us that have never looked at us before,” Fahey said.
These include events like WIAA Girls State Wrestling, which held its first-ever tournament at the center this winter, or the state high school robotics competition. The upgraded arena and stage area is also slowly catching the attention of performers and shows, and they have hosted darts tournaments and continue with fan favorites like the monster truck shows.
While the La Crosse Center has always had an economic impact on the region, that jolt is now even stronger.
The most immediate impact will be felt downtown, Fahey said, where the La Crosse Center will serve as a new landmark and vessel for downtown visitors.
“We’re letting these guys off downtown for a night out — that can fill a lot of different places downtown to shop, eat and socialize,” Fahey said. “They can definitely feel it when we let them go like that.”
But the impacts also extend further around the Coulee region. Hotels are getting more residents and the La Crosse Center is trying to promote other activities in the area, like a tour to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, a boat ride, the many hiking and biking trails, and more.
“When they come in, they’re always looking for more than: What are we doing tonight?” said Fahey.
Fahey said he expected the impact to extend to the region’s workforce as well. The La Crosse Center itself has added five new full-time positions since its expansion, and its part-time staff continues to grow.
However, as the center draws more people to the city, it will likely also channel the need for more workers and jobs for other businesses. Not to mention that the center frequently hosts congresses and meetings where companies and groups work to develop themselves and their employees.
“Because more people are coming into the city, the whole idea is that more jobs will be created, either through indirect or direct spending,” Fahey said. “We hope that even more jobs will be created.”
Literally Manufactured in the Coulee region
While what is happening inside the La Crosse Center is helping to grow the area, the work that went into the expansion project was also done using local labor and materials.
Kraus-Anderson senior project manager Peter Linsmeier, who led the project, said 60% of the $42 million expansion was spent within 75 miles of the La Crosse Center, which includes labor and materials.
“This is a tax-funded project, so it’s important that the dollars are spent in the community because those dollars then stay in the community and other businesses develop in the community,” Linsmeier said.
It’s difficult to keep track of exactly how many crew members were on site, Linsmeier said, but an average of 48 people worked on site each day over the two-year project.
But the steel used for the extension was almost as close as can be. The material was used for a “big chunk” of construction and is just blocks from the La Crosse Center at Mannstedt Steel, which is on the south side of town.
“The whole community benefits, not just those who use the La Crosse Center,” Linsmeier said.
Local elements have also been woven into the design of the renovations.
Fahey said the Mississippi River was one of the first things officials talked about because it’s in the center’s backyard. And just like Green Bay has the Packers and Madison has the capital and the university, the big question was: What’s unique about La Crosse?
Of course, the natural beauty of the Driftless Region.
To honor this, natural elements are embedded throughout the center. Carpet throughout is designed to resemble a river’s wave, and the woodwork in the ballroom has a waterfall effect. Shades of blue are integral parts of the venue’s new branding. And one of the most popular new touches is the new panoramic river view.
Other local details include a mosaic by Minneapolis artist Stacia Goodman depicting a heron soaring over a river and featuring designs made from traditional Ho-Chunk Nation wickerwork.
The redesign also paid special attention to the ” Zielke Suite,” named for former Mayor Pat Zielke, the director who oversaw the early days of La Crosse Center.
“Bringing that legacy here is just something that makes us unique and different from any other community you go to. And sometimes people are just looking for that little bit of information and uniqueness that’s special about La Crosse,” Fahey said.
Looking ahead, La Crosse Center will likely have an event for everyone.
In May, Riverdance fans can join the crowd at the 25th Anniversary show. In August, gaming lovers can look forward to the Coulee Con. In September, the popular Elvis Explosion returns, and in October, Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens will host two shows.
And that is just the beginning.
“The next few years are really bright,” Fahey said. “We’ve got a brand new shiny building down here that we’re working with and I’m seeing it growing and growing.”
He added: “I think La Crosse can be very proud of that.”
In Photos: Rotary Lights 2021