An overhead rendering of the preferred option offered by JDS Development in its proposal for Judge Doyle Square.
The committee overseeing proposals for the most expensive project Madison has ever contemplated got surprisingly little input at a public hearing on Monday night, with just a few dozen people showing up and even fewer expressing opinions.
But the opinions they expressed were very much divided.
The committee is reviewing proposals from two developers for Judge Doyle Square, a project that would approach $200 million and redevelop two blocks adjacent to Monona Terrace. The project is being considered primarily to construct a headquarters hotel next to Monona Terrace, but would also include parking, offices, retail and upscale housing.
During the hearing, which lasted just 45 minutes, hotel managers, a group that has been noticeably quiet on the project, broke their silence and urged the committee to proceed with caution.
Stephen Zanoni, general manager of the Madison Concourse Hotel, Madison's largest hotel, told the committee that while Monona Terrace is important to the city, the convention business is a risky one, littered with failures. He pointed out two notable examples, including St. Louis' Renaissance Grand Hotel, which was recently foreclosed, and Baltimore's city-owned Hilton convention center hotel, which is bleeding cash.
"It's really important to look at the consultant studies and ask skeptical questions," Zanoni said. Zanoni has questions himself about a recent study by consultant HVS, which projects a new hotel will increase Monona Terrace's business by 60%. "A 60% increase in business is going to be very difficult for the city to achieve," he said, adding that many cities are forced to give room blocks away for free in order to draw conventions. "It's a very difficult market and it hasn't grown in the last 10 years."
Susan Springman, of the Mullins Group, which owns the Inn on the Park hotel on Capitol Square, questioned the high subsidy the city is contemplating for the project. The two developers have asked for between $45 and $80 million in public aid. "We do not agree that these blocks are blighted," she said.
She also worried that a new headquarters hotel would pull business away from Monona Terrace. "If conventions want to be in the same building, why wouldn't they just hold the event in the new hotel and bypass Monona Terrace?"
Others disagreed. Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, which helps market Monona Terrace, said that a new hotel would open up thousands of conventions that the terrace could compete for that it can't now.
A few people gave preferences for one developer. Scott Thornton, past president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association, said he favored a proposal by JDS Development, because it would convert the Madison Municipal Building into a hotel. Noting the Municipal Building's run-down condition, he told the committee: "Look around this room. Is this what we want to preserve? It wasn't that long ago that the city couldn’t even keep an elevator running in this building."
He also said he disliked the rival proposal by Journeyman Group, which he said would create a "canyon effect" on Pinckney Street with two very tall buildings.
But Joshua Berkson, co-owner of Merchant, a restaurant across the street from the project site, praised Journeyman Group. "I see one group working very hard to reach out and get feedback and that's Journeyman Group."
The Judge Doyle Square Committee is expected to get a full staff report on the financial viability of both plans on Monday, Nov. 25. The committee is expected to have a recommendation to the Common Council in December, with the council expected to act on it in January.
A critic of publicly-funded convention centers will give presentations this week on the economics and national trends of the convention industry. Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, will give a presentation to Common Council members from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday in room 260 of the Madison Municipal Building. He'll give a presentation to the public from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday night in room 201 of the City County Building.