CHICAGO - Milwaukee convention center officials are working on a $167 million bond-financed plan to add 300,000 square feet to the facility in the city's downtown area.

The Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center and Arena's board of directors last Thursday gave preliminary approval for the expansion, which would provide the additional space over the next 10 years. The center currently has about 177,000 square feet of exhibit, meeting, and ballroom space.

Implementation of the plan will require approval of a financing package by the board, according to Geoffrey Hurtado, president of the convention center, which is owned by the city. The final expansion plan will require approval from the Milwaukee Common Council and Mayor John O. Norquist.

Hurtado said convention center officials are exploring the idea of issuing revenue bonds backed by proceeds from an increase in city or county hotel taxes and secured by Wisconsin or another government.

Convention center officials estimate that the expansion would create an additional 2,600 to 4,400 jobs in Milwaukee and would increase spending in the city by about $300 million a year.

Alderman John Kalwitz, president of the Common Council and a member of the convention board, said the state should pay 65% to 70% of the expansion costs. He said state support could come in the form of grant funds or a sales tax increase, both of which would require legislative approval.

"Without state support, the whole project could be in jeopardy, Kalwitz said.

Kalwitz said he expected the financing plan to be completed in early spring. Any state funding component of the plan would require approval by the Legislature, which convenes in January, he added.

"Time is of the essence," Hurtado said, commenting that the expansion would help Milwaukee remain competitive in garnering convention business. The city's primary competitors include Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and other mid-sized cities, he said.

A spokesman for Norquist said the main task before the board and city is to ensure that convention center "beneficiaries," such as local businesses and the state, invest in the project.

James Klauser, secretary of the state Department of Administration, did not return phone calls. He is Gov. Tommy Thompson's chief aide with regard to the expansion plan.

Meanwhile, Circus Circus Enterprises Inc., a Las Vegas casino operator, has approached city officials about building a privately financed gaming and theme park in the Milwaukee area. The proposal was made after a similar $2 billion plan slated for Chicago stalled in the Illinois legislature.

Critics have dismissed the Milwaukee proposal as a ploy to pressure Illinois officials to approve the Chicago plan.

Norquist's spokesman said the mayor does not believe "it would be in Milwaukee's interests to become a gambling city."

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