CRE v Wisconsin

Developers keep flocking to downtown Milwaukee

Developers flocking to downtown Milwaukee,ph01
Downtown Milwaukee’s first Hyatt Place recently opened.

Looking for a Midwest city that's firmly in boom mode when it comes to commercial construction? Look to Milwaukee. Developers today have flocked to downtown Milwaukee, thanks in part to the Fiserv Forum, a 730,000-square-foot, 17,500-seat, multi-purpose arena now under construction in the city's downtown. 

This arena, which will serve as the new home of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, is the centerpiece of a new sports and entertainment district in downtown Milwaukee. A public-private partnership, this is the first new sports and entertainment arena in Wisconsin since 2002. 

Tom Irgens, vice president with Milwaukee developer Irgens, said that the activity in Milwaukee today doesn't surprise him. 

Instead, it encourages him. 

"I believe that people see the value in our community," he said. "Because of that, they are making significant investments. Many of the companies and development firms investing in the city are from Milwaukee. But we also see many firms from outside Milwaukee and Wisconsin making investments in our community. That tells me that even outside companies are seeing the value in our community."

The Bucks arena project isn't the only major one in downtown Milwaukee. 

Northwestern Mutual has also provided a boost to downtown Milwaukee, with the recently completed 7Seventy7, a 35-story luxury apartment building. The $100 million complex includes a golf simulator, outdoor swimming pool and high-end penthouse suite.

Adding to the buzz in downtown is the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which, late last year, announced plans to renovate the historic Warner Grand Theatre in downtown to serve as its new home. That's another bit of good news; the Warner Grand, which opened in 1931, has been closed since 1995. 

What is attracting developers, both in-town and out-town, to Milwaukee? Irgens said that Milwaukee is a good place to do business, with lower costs than developers face in other major cities. There's a strong workforce here. There's been an urban renaissance in the city, and people are moving to downtown. 

This combination is attractive both to developers and companies looking to open new locations, Irgens said. 

Irgens can point to the 25-story BMO Harris Tower office building in downtown Milwaukee as an example of the activity here. Irgens is developing that project, which will serve as the Milwaukee headquarters for BMO Harris but also as the new home for law firm Michael Best and Friedrich.

Irgens says that he expects to see more projects such as this in Milwaukee and across the country. That's because companies understand that they have to offer modern office space, often in urban locations, if they want to attract and retain the best workers, he said. 

"Companies have realized how important the physical environment is," Irgens said. "They've had to look at reinvesting in their physical spaces, which has led to new development activity. People are realizing that maybe their existing office buildings don't fit the new way in which people want to work. They have looked at new product in the office sector. It's leading to a new wave of development."

Like others working in Milwaukee, Irgens is excited about the booming activity in downtown. The Bucks arena project might have started the boom, but Irgens is equally excited about the influx of ancillary businesses that the new arena has inspired.

Entrepreneurs are opening new locations near the arena, Irgens said. New multifamily projects are being developed. Restaurants are opening. 

"I don't think the development surge in downtown Milwaukee will end anytime soon," Irgens said. "Everyone is very optimistic about our entire region."

And as the Bucks project has been a catalyst for downtown, the Foxconn project has been the same for Racine County and its surrounding areas, Irgens said. 

"Foxconn is going to add so many jobs to that area," Irgens said. "We are going to see general contractors, tradespeople, suppliers, all funneling materials and providing services for this project. Because of projects like this, everyone feels optimistic about the future of our city and state. I know I am very optimistic."

This is a significant change from 2009, which Irgens calls the worst of times for the real estate market. Today, the mood has changed, and this optimism has brought development and sales activity.

"People are investing today," Irgens said. "People realize that we have a very strong workforce. Our state finances are in terrific shape. When companies are looking for places to locate, they see that Milwaukee has big-city amenities, sports teams, an unbelievable arts scene. They see a really great restaurant scene. There is a lot to do here, and you can live affordably here. That's why people are coming to Milwaukee."