Taking Livestock: Mark Clarke oversees the new AEC pavilion project
When the opportunity to become executive director of the Alliant Energy Center (AEC) presented itself in late 2012, Mark Clarke, 46, wasn’t looking to move, “but the stars just aligned.” In his current role, he is charged with bringing the complex back to profitability after a rough recession, “but knowing I had the pavilion project going on made this opportunity intriguing,” he says.
Clarke also was in a unique position: He’d been involved in AEC’s expansion talks from the very beginning, first as a World Dairy Expo (WDE) board member and then as general manager at WDE. Now, as the head of AEC’s 164-acre campus, he leads the effort from the other side of the table.
“It’s all about economic impact, and bringing people to Madison, to hotels and restaurants.” — Mark Clarke
Clarke knows the $24 million pavilion project, scheduled to begin immediately following the Midwest Horse Fair in April, will be his largest challenge to date.
“I’m excited as hell, but nervous,” he admits. “If you don’t have a bit of nervousness about a massive project like this, you must not have a heartbeat.” The entire two-pavilion project, from demolition to opening, will begin in April and be completed just in time for the 2014 World Dairy Expo, its first event. It couldn’t have happened, he says, without the enthusiastic public-private support the project has received.
Clarke appears to be well prepared for this moment. From the time he was a young boy helping out with his family’s hobby farm and participating in FFA in school, he recognized that he would always work around production animals. “I didn’t want to go into nuts and bolts,” he says, “not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not me.”
He earned a degree in animal science from UW-River Falls and followed his agricultural dream to ABS. He then launched Vienna Pharms in DeForest, a partnership between ABS’s cloning division and a Dutch pharmaceutical company. In 2004 he joined BouMatic as both a product manager and trade show manager, and he represented BouMatic on WDE’s board.
When the WDE general manager position opened up in 2007, Clarke was encouraged to apply. “That position took me further away from production agriculture to business management,” he notes, “but I still had a tie to agriculture.”
While there, he implemented a new paper health check-in process to ensure the bio-security of the livestock. “We didn’t have a good, vet-checked health paper process,” he says. “When you’re commingling 2,500 animals from all over the world, you need to be responsible for those animals.” The improvements, he believes, helped boost WDE’s world-class standing even more.
Now at AEC, Clarke is confident the World Dairy Expo will become just one of many similar-sized events AEC can lure to Madison as a result of the facility’s expansion. “We looked at the need — livestock facilities, and the want — more exhibition space. We originally thought we’d do both programs together. I would have had all gray hair had we done that,” he says. The livestock, it was decided, would take precedence.
Two pavilions, tripling the square footage of Expo Hall’s current flat space, will soon replace AEC’s dilapidated agriculture barns. “It’s all about economic impact,” Clarke explains, “and bringing people to Madison, to hotels and restaurants.”
The smaller of the two pavilions, offering 90,000 sq. ft. of heated space, will be available for bookings year-round. “Shows will come here now at times of the year that we didn’t have available before,” Clarke says. The second, a 200,000-sq.-ft. pavilion, will be large enough to attract events that in the past overlooked the city because it was lacking in venue space.
Representatives of the World Dairy Expo and all the project’s financial supporters have cohesively worked hand in hand on this project since the very beginning, Clarke says, and understand the need for a soft launch. “After WDE, we won’t be booking any events for 30 days to allow Miron Construction a chance to get inside and take care of any items that might need attention.”
Clarke looks forward to the project’s ribbon cutting, after which “we can take two seconds and say, ‘We did it.’ But then it’s all about how we keep these facilities full and continue to deliver to the customer.”
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