La Crosse Center: The First 40 Years

Posted by Anita on February 23, 2022

written by Scott Brouwer, Archives Staff

With the opening of the $42 million addition to the La Crosse Center in December, it seems a fitting time to take a look back at the La Crosse Center’s first 40+ years.



The concept for the La Crosse Center came about around 1975 when it became clear the Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium was no longer adequate to host big events.  Mayor Pat Zielke prioritized the building of a new arena/convention center when land became available in the new Harborview Plaza development, an urban renewal project in the area bordered by State, Jay, 2nd, and Front Streets that was extended to include the block bordered by State, Main, 2nd, and 3rd Streets.  Many of the aging buildings in these blocks had been severely damaged by a major flood in 1965 and over the course of the next 15 years, these blocks were cleared of their buildings.  

While those involved in the initial stages of the Harborview Plaza development envisioned large retail stores or a mall, when those plans fell through, the plan that eventually came to fruition materialized.  Taking the place of the torn-down buildings would be assorted surface parking lots and parking ramps, the 100 Harborview Plaza office building, the Radisson Hotel, the U.S. Bank Building, and the La Crosse Center.


1953 Sanborn map highlighting (in red) the area now occupied by the La Crosse Center.  All the buildings detailed on the map were razed as part of the Harvorview Plaza development, an urban reneal project instigated by a major flood in 1965.  Mt. Vernon Street, which connected to the original wagon bridge over the Mississippi River, was vacated as part of Harborview Plaza plans.  Click image for closer view.

In order to obtain federal funds for the proposed arena/convention center project, a hotel had to be located next to it, along with another business.  Russell Cleary built the G. Heileman Brewing Co. headquarters on the north end of the development (100 Harborview Plaza) and the Radisson Corp. agreed to build a hotel if local investors provided money for half the cost of the project. 

In early 1978, city voters passed a referendum on whether the convention center should be built by a large margin.  Construction began later that year at a cost of slightly less than $10 million with the federal government providing a little more than $4 million for the project. 


La Crosse Tribune 18 Nov 1979 highlighting, from left: 100 Harborview Plaza office building, Radisson Hotel, and the La Crosse Center.  Click image for closer view.



1980 Grand Opening flyer, click image for closer view.


1980 Grand Opening button

The opening of the La Crosse Center in late 1980 was celebrated over several weeks and included shows by Bob Hope, John Denver, and Johnny Cash. 


La Crosse Tribune 13 Oct 1980


La Crosse Tribune 3 Nov 1980


Over the next 20 years, some of the biggest names in entertainment played the La Crosse Center.  This includes Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Liberace, Rush, Diana Ross, Metallica, traveling Broadway shows, Hulk Hogan and the WWF, Marilyn Manson, Barry Manilow, George Carlin, B.B. King, David Copperfield, Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, Kelly Clarkson and more country music stars than I can even name here. 


La Crosse Tribune 5 Jun 1985


La Crosse Tribune 6 Aug 1987


La Crosse Tribune 19 Mar 1992


La Crosse Tribune 14 Apr 1994


La Crosse Tribune 19 Nov 1998


In the Center Spotlight newsletters from 1997 featuring country music star Alan Jackson, comedian George Carlin, comedian Gallagher, and blues legend B.B. King


In the mid-1990s, despite being only 15 years old, it started to become clear that the La Crosse Center was losing out on convention business because it didn’t have the space to host larger multi-day events nor to host multiple smaller events at the same time.  A $14 million renovation completed in 2000 created two exhibit halls (North and South Halls), a ballroom, board rooms, a pre-function area, and a food preparation space with much of the physical footprint expanding to the southwest of the core 1980 structure.


South Hall and entrance addition from 2nd Street looking west, 1999.  In the foreground on the left is the Radisson Center ballroom, a separate detached building.


Satellite image highlighting the 2000 South Hall and entrance addition to the La Crosse Center.  Image courtesy of Google Maps.

While the 2000 expansion led to consistent financial success of the city-run venue, the most recent expansion discussions began in 2015, with construction beginning in 2019.  Powering through a few early planning hiccups and a worldwide pandemic, city leaders and the La Crosse Center Board solidified the $42 million renovation and the project was completed on time and under budget.  It includes a new ballroom that overlooks the Mississippi River, a rooftop terrace with downtown views, facelifts to existing spaces including the 40-year-old arena, a new atrium, sustainable features, and new modern shell. 


Award-winning La Crosse Center re-branding by Vendi Advertising from La Crosse Tribune, December 2021.  Click the image for the full article.


West side of newly renovated La Crosse Center, February 2022


Entrance at the newly renovated La Crosse Center, February 2022.  Photo taken by Anita Taylor Doering.