The city's Board of Estimates has approved moving into private negotiations with a development group for Judge Doyle Square, even though numerous questions about the project linger.
On Tuesday, the Common Council will take up the recommendation to negotiate with a group headed by Hammes Company's Bob Dunn. Dunn proposes a $216 million project, requesting $98 million in city investment; he has also offered a $159 million project that would use the Madison Municipal Building as part of a headquarters hotel for Monona Terrace. The project includes replacing the Government East parking garage and building offices, retail outlets, high-end residences and the hotel.
The proposal is the most expensive of three that a committee evaluated for the city -- and would be the most expensive city project ever.
If the council gives the green light, Mayor Paul Soglin will head negotiations, working with staff. They will have until Aug. 15 to come back with a recommendation to the council, in time to include funding in next year's budget.
In trying to reassure skeptics at Monday's Board of Estimates meeting, Soglin ticked off several projects he's negotiated for the city. He acknowledged there were uncertainties about the city's financial commitment, but said, "There's no way to answer those questions until you go into negotiations."
Soglin added that if the negotiations break down, he'd look to staff for recommendations, which he said might include going out for new bids or killing the project. "I think that's a remote possibility," he said of the latter option.
The most controversial part of the project is funding for a hotel to attract more conventions to Monona Terrace.
Andy Olsen, of the group Citizens Against Subsidized Hotels, said after the meeting that he is disappointed.
"They didn't make the case that this is good for Madison," he said of city leaders. "Show us public demand for a hotel. Show the city's taxpayers that they will get their money back."
Those supporting the project repeated claims that the hotel will be a boon for Monona Terrace. Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the board that a new hotel would allow the bureau to court 700 new conventions. It typically gets 50% of the ones it competes for.
Ald. David Ahrens, a critic of the project, said that for the hotel to be successful, it will need to host 300 guests for 300 nights a year -- or 90,000 guests -- to make money. He says there's no way Monona Terrace could attract that many people.
"Why would there be that many people there? Why would the hotel be nearly full, December, January, March, April? It's just not when we have tourists," Ahrens said after the meeting, alluding to the cold-weather months. "The fantasy that thousands of people are going to come to Madison to stay at another brand-name hotel will be short-lived."
A bigger problem facing Monona Terrace is that it's too small and lacks the smaller "breakout rooms" conventions require, Ahrens added. "The La Crosse conference center is twice the size [of Monona Terrace]. Green Bay is three times the size."
Monona Terrace, he adds, is "not a suitable site for meetings that draw hundreds of people."
[Editor's Note: This article was corrected to clarify that Ald. Ahrens believes that the hotel needs to host 300 guests for 300 night a year to be successful.]