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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Alliant Energy Center needs help
Leaders focused on Overture have overlooked problems at the county facility
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If you define a problem in the wrong terms and fail to see the larger context of why something is screwing up, chances are your solution will fail. Take the Overture Center for the Arts and its financial woes.

City officials and Overture boosters have labored mightily to create a new ownership model and financial plan that takes hold on Jan. 1, 2012. Their intentions were admirable. But their work was too narrowly focused and conceptually unimaginative.

Mayor Paul Soglin, who inherited the plan, may have been too blunt in predicating it will "crash and burn." But there's little doubt that the plan fails to address a much bigger concern: How best to manage the area's premier event facilities, Overture, the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center and the Alliant Energy Center.

Sorely missing is a regional approach that might save money and address problems in a comprehensive way. That last point needs to be emphasized.

Overture isn't the only marquee venue with financial problems. Nobody seems aware that the Alliant is suffering its own money squeeze. This is worrisome enough, but Alliant's reduced means threatens the viability of the single most important convention that comes to town each year: World Dairy Expo.

Among the area's top-tier event facilities, the county-owned Alliant stands alone. This includes the unrivaled breadth of its facilities - the 10,000-seat Coliseum and the Exhibition Hall are augmented with an arena, the Willow Island outdoor venue and nine farm buildings - and also its financing.

Unlike Monona Terrace and Overture, Alliant receives no direct public subsidy. County officials expect it to pay its own way. But times have been tough. The big concerts of years past (everyone from Sinatra to Elvis to Bowie) have largely disappeared, while the facility is still suffering the loss of UW Hockey to the Kohl Center.

According to executive director Bill DiCarlo, Alliant has been digging into its $2 million reserve fund to balance the operational budget in recent years. He expects his deficit to exceed $250,000 this year. But observers say that DiCarlo runs a tight ship, and under normal circumstances Alliant could be expected to tough it out until the economy picks up.

But these aren't normal times. Alliant needs an infusion of capital now to satisfy the space needs of World Dairy Expo. It's difficult to overestimate the importance of World Dairy Expo to the Wisconsin economy. The yearly confab - ranked among the top 35 trade shows in the entire country - fills local hotels with more than 65,000 visitors from 90-plus countries.

The immediate economic boost for local hotels, restaurant and entertainment venues exceeds $14 million for the five-day event. But the deeper payoff is the business generated for Wisconsin agribusinesses like ABS bovine genetics in DeForest and BouMatic milking systems in Madison. More than 750 exhibitors will be on hand when the 44th show convenes on Oct. 4.

Just one problem. The expo has a huge waiting list of vendors because Alliant has nowhere near enough space to house them. "We could double the size of the Exhibition Hall and fill it with our waiting list," says expo general manager Mark Clarke. "That's an awful lot of money not coming into the community."

Expo has been in Madison since its founding in 1967, and Clarke says the international fair would love to stay here. But other cities like Louisville have their eye on Expo, and the current contract ends in 2012.

Losing World Dairy Expo would be catastrophic. That's why our leaders need to move beyond their single-minded focus on Overture and look at the big picture. The regional (and sometimes statewide) importance of Alliant, Monona Terrace and Overture is undeniable. The time to treat them as such is now.

Here are three game-changing options:

  • Voters approve a multi-county service district like Denver's. This groundbreaking model, focused on museums, performance venues and arts groups, generates $40 million a year from a .1% sales tax levied in seven counties. This is the gold standard for a regional approach to regional facilities and - okay, I admit it - virtually inconceivable in the 19th-century world of Wisconsin politics.

  • The Legislature creates an exposition district in the Madison area. This one makes more sense. Business leader Mark Bugher floated a similar idea in 2008, but it was dropped because of the efforts to create a regional transportation authority were deemed more important.
    The model would be the Wisconsin Center District in downtown Milwaukee, which operates several convention facilities. Operating expenses are covered by the venues, but capital expenses are paid for by modest taxes on rooms, rental cars, and restaurants and bars. DiCarlo likes this idea: "The community benefits from the improvements, and they're primarily funded by visitors."

  • A dedicated Dane County sales tax is enacted to support the regional facilities. This is an even more modest proposal. Before scandal forced Bob D'Angelo from the top Overture post, he proposed that Dane County institute a .1% sales tax to support the three event facilities plus the Vilas zoo.

All these models have pros and cons. But the time has come to open the discussion. We need to look at Overture's needs as well as Alliant's needs. Perhaps our new mayor and county executive will see the wisdom of collaboration.

Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

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