CITY OF BROOKFIELD – The table is set.
The city of Brookfield took one of its largest steps to date toward the construction of a major conference center when officials revealed that the current plan is to place the facility just south of Brookfield Square.
A resolution of necessity was approved by the city council 12-2 at Tuesday's meeting.
The center and an adjacent hotel would rest on approximately 9.5 acres of land currently owned by CBL Property & Associates. CBL owns Brookfield Square and the targeted parcel, which is currently used for Sears' auto-repair area and parking.
The proposed site would put the conference center only feet away from a number of existing hotels, including the Sheraton, which currently boasts the city’s largest contiguous meeting space at approximately 7,000 square feet.
The city plans to own the conference center and lease it to an attached hotel partner.
The city of Brookfield has been working with the Brookfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (Visit Brookfield) to explore a conference center in the area since 2012.
Aldermen Christopher Blackburn and Jerry Mellone made up the opposition to Tuesday night's vote. Blackburn also opposed the resolution of necessity at the Public Works Committee level and has consistently spoken against the conference center.
"Using tax money, we're going to construct a conference center. A conference center that is going to be operated for the profit of a private corporation and it's going to be for the use of private patrons or private corporations," Blackburn said. "My constituents don't need a conference center. It's not a public conference center. It's not the general public that's going to use it like a library or a park."
A current financing approach would see the hotel room tax in the city raised from 8 to 10 percent. City staff say if all goes according to plan, the hotel room tax should be able to cover the cost.
Despite that reassurance, Blackburn remained skeptical of taking on the financial risk of the project.
"As a backstop if general obligation bonds are used, ultimately the cost does reside with the taxpayers of the city if room tax doesn't produce for any reason," Blackburn said.
The inspiration for using a higher hotel room tax to fund the conference center stems from a change by the state government two years ago that requires communities to spend a larger portion of such revenue on tourism-related expenses rather than their general operations.
Visit Brookfield President and CEO Nancy Justman has said that all hotels in Brookfield are in favor of the plan.
Alderman Bill Carnell was among Tuesday night's majority, noting that the resolution of necessity is not a point of no return.
"This isn't going to cost us anything to do this this evening," Carnell said. "You will have many chances to discuss the merits of the project."
City of Brookfield City Attorney Karen Flaherty noted that a resolution of necessity should not be confused with eminent domain, which was brought up by Jerry Mellone. Flaherty and Mayor Steve Ponto called the resolution of necessity simply a "procedural step."
"There are a number of municipalities that would not adopt a resolution of necessity. It's a procedural step. We do it because it's the more conservative route," Flaherty said. "Before you initiate specific negotiation regarding price, you should adopt a resolution of necessity."
In January, CBL closed on a deal with Sears to acquire the company’s property at the mall with the intent of eventually re-purposing the area including potentially converting it into a number of smaller shops or restaurants. The 9.5 acres being looked at by the city falls within that property.
CBL was unable to be reached immediately for comment.
A market feasibility study has shown that a conference center would result in nearly $275,000 worth of new annual revenue for the city and Brookfield hotel officials say that nearly 35,000 hotel room nights and $6.8 million in economic impact has been lost in the last two years due to the community lacking a conference space of adequate size.
City of Brookfield Director of Community Development Dan Ertl said the city has not yet contacted CBL regarding their intent to negotiate for the property as staff was waiting to do so until after Tuesday's resolution.