Conference Sheds Light on New Arena Issue, But Leaves Questions Unanswered

There was a question mark in the title of Monday’s conference at Marquette University Law School: “A New Milwaukee Sports and Entertainment Arena? Divining the Benefits and Dividing the Costs.”

Six hours of presentations offered a lot of serious discussion, a wide range of perspectives, expert input, comparative experiences from other metropolitan areas, and insights into factors involved in the issue. You could even say there was a broad sense of agreement that it will be good for Milwaukee if the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team stays in the city, in that no one favored the team leaving.

But the conference didn’t – and, in reality, surely couldn’t – remove any of the formidable question marks that hang over the futures of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Bucks, and a possible new sports and entertainment franchise in Milwaukee.

What the conference was intended to do was help propel the conversation forward – and propel in it a serious, level-headed way. On that score, consider the session – sponsored by Marquette Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and supported by the Law School’s Lubar Fund for Public Policy Research — a success. Everyone involved in what is sure to be a major and highly controversial issue that will continue over several years (the Bucks current lease at the arena runs until 2017) shed light on the potential, possibilities, and pitfalls ahead in the search for a solution.

In fact, several of the speakers, including Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and an influential expert on stadium and arena issues, praised the conference as a way to make work on the issue transparent and open to public input at an early stage, rather than keeping things behind closed doors until key private and public leaders emerge to announce what they want.

That said, it was hard to leave the conference with much of a sense of what lies ahead. Several of the speakers expressed optimism that things would work out to build a new arena and keep the Bucks (“I’m in entirely the wrong job if I’m not optimistic,” said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and a central driver in the effort to come up with a better arena).

But how do you come up with what several speakers suggested would be perhaps a half billion dollars to replace the Bradley Center, 25 years old and regarded by sports and entertainment leaders as nearing the end of its useful life?

Private funding? That worked for the Bradley Center, which was paid for by philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit, but it seems unlikely anyone will step forward with that degree of generosity. Matt Parlow, associate dean for academic affairs at Marquette Law School and an expert on sports issues, said in a presentation, “This community has been really spoiled,” by the Pettit generosity. “It was unique, it was extraordinary, and we’re not going to see it again,” Parlow said.

A new sales tax on a city-wide or regional basis? Continuing the Miller Park sales tax? User taxes? Tourism taxes? “Sin” taxes on cigarettes and alcohol? All were discussed. None was viewed as an easy sell.

Zimbalist said that the nationwide average in recent years has been for arenas and stadiums to be paid for with about 65% of the funds from public sources and 35% from private sources. In smaller cities, such as Milwaukee, that has run as high as 100% public funding.

Zimbalist also said research he and others have done shows professional sports franchises and arenas have little positive economic benefit on a community overall – he compared their impact to that of a department store. “It’s basically a neutral event” economically to have a major league team in a city, he said, although he granted there were exceptions and there were intangible aspects to the value of a sports team.

A panel of local leaders who support the new arena said keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee is a central element – but far from the only one – of keeping up the quality of life here and keeping Milwaukee a place where people want to live and businesses want to locate. Losing the franchise would be something the city would regret, they said.

“We have it in us” to solve the issue, said Cory Nettles, managing director of Generation Growth Capital. He called for “bold, audacious” thinking to move Milwaukee forward not only in dealing with an arena, but in making sure other major cultural attractions such as museums and the zoo stay strong, and especially in dealing with education issues.

Several speakers said if the arena issue is not solved in the next several years, the Bucks will leave Milwaukee because the franchise will not be viable here and will be hotly pursued by other cities. David Boardman, executive editor of the Seattle Times, described what has happened in Seattle, which lost an NBA franchise several years ago, Led by a group of wealthy private citizens, the city currently is trying to lure the Sacramento NBA franchise to town. And if that fails, Broadman said, Milwaukee is likely to be the next target.

But how much is an NBA franchise a priority, compared to other matters? Alderman Willie Hines, president of the Milwaukee Common Council, and Alderman Michael Murphy, chair of the council’s finance and budget committee, both said they wanted the Bucks to stay but that the issue had to be put in the context of the city’s difficult budget picture. Hines said the conference was focusing on entertainment when many of his constituents were focused on getting food. Murphy said the city doesn’t have enough money to raze all its abandoned homes and it faced being asked to raze the Bradley Center in favor of something fancier.

“I don’t know if a city that is the fourth poorest city in the United States can keep up with the insatiable appetite of NBA basketball,” Murphy said.

If the city is not in a position to carry the weight, what about the region? There was considerable advocacy that a regional solution was best – and would be very difficult to sell politically. Robin Vos, speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly and a representative from Racine County, said a prerequisite for getting serious attention for the issue in the state Capitol would be a nearly unanimous agreement in the Milwaukee area on a plan. He said passage of a referendum supporting a plan would be his preferred evidence of support.

But memories of the controversies over the construction of Miller Park in the late 1990s and the recent history around the country of difficulty getting arena and stadium ideas approved by voters or their representatives was mentioned frequently.

The conference was attended by an array of people involved and, in some cases, influential, in sports and government in the Milwaukee area. But missing were three key figures: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and Bucks owner Herb Kohl. Many speakers said it will take steps by those three to decide the ultimate outcome, but some suggested it was too early for them to make their moves. More ground work – such as a task force being created by the association of commerce – needs to be done first.

While there are more chapters to be written, and eventually the question marks will be turned into answers of one kind or another, the conference formed an early and insightful chapter on where things stand – and it was all out there for the public to see. Or, if you want, to watch by clicking here.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Michelle Puzin Mooney

    It would seem that the time when the corporate club of Milwaukee just decides on a need, and then government (us) fills it, may be past.

    It would also seem that the idea that there has to be a major league basketball team here for us to the a “First Class City”, what ever that means may also been gone.

    And after listening to the Oklahoma City example, it seems that our Milwaukee City and County Citizens, elected officials at various levels, and the business community need to be planning together to democratically decide, yikes that scary messy world again, just exactly what in terms of infrastructure, capital improvements, and programs, we need across this region to return to our former place of public and private sector excellence.

    Just read your Milwaukee history if you doubt that we had first class public schools, parks, roads, transit, neighborhoods with amenities, and flourishing businesses.

    We need leaders to step up from our citizens, our church communities, associations, as well as our public officials and business community. We need to research, survey, and debate what is really going to make us a “World Class City” again.

    To hear Oklahoma City’s story is to be reminded that no matter where the place the city is in the cycle of development, it is not a permanent and fatal position.

    We need more people, groups, associations, clubs, businesses, universities, schools , and any other groups that still think the Common Good is still worth talking about and working toward.

    It won’t be easy, but then nothing of worth usually is. It sure beats thinking that spending $500 million (that’s 1/2 billion at least in old math) on a basketball stadium is a step towards greatness.

    Michelle P. Mooney
    Common Ground

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