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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 12, 2017

Milwaukee has always been known for its numerous breweries — fully a half-dozen are open for tours. However, the sheer amount of new, full-service hotel supply that is being added to the city's inventory, not to mention its robust development pipeline, is stepping up this Midwestern city's profile as a meeting and convention destination.

For starters, one recent upscale addition is the 158-room Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, which opened in June 2016. At the helm of its Mediterranean-style restaurant, Tre Rivali, is executive chef Heather Terhune, a former Top Chef contestant. And coming this summer is the 220-room Westin Milwaukee, with 9,000 square feet of meeting space; the property will be connected to the U.S. Bank Center, a 42-story office complex.

The above is in addition to several new-build, limited-service chains staking ground here, such as the 155-suite SpringHill Suites Milwaukee Downtown, connected to the Wisconsin Center by skywalk, which opened last July. Currently under construction in the city's historic Button Block building is a 94-room Homewood Suites by Hilton, slated to open in a few months.

Marco Bloemendaal, senior vice president of Visit Milwaukee, the city's marketing arm, says that while the new upscale supply of properties is sure to boost the city's appeal for business travelers and corporate business, city officials are poised to decide on a significant development project that will have a huge impact on convention business.

"With the development boom, the brand of the city has sparked a lot of interest," Bloemendaal told me, speaking from Austin, where he was attending PCMA. "The conversation we are all waiting and anxious to have is about expanding our convention center, and there are two competing development projects on the table right now, each very different, involving more hotels and meeting space, that speak to that."

In response to an RFP from city fathers, two real estate development companies submitted proposals to develop a two-acre parcel at North Fourth Street and West Wisconsin Avenue, across the street from the city's downtown Wisconsin Center. One, referred to as Nexus, includes the building of three hotels for a total of 506 rooms, and a combined 103,000 square meeting and event space.

The second proposal, called eMbarKE, calls for a 276-room expansion of the existing Hilton Milwaukee City Center Hotel, which would bring the property’s total room count to 1,005, in effect giving the city a convention headquarters hotel. "The difference between the two projects is the convention center would manage the new meeting space that is part of the [Nexus] hotels, and that is very unique," says Bloemendaal. "We think a decision could be imminent, and I would imagine it could be ready and open by early 2020."