Everybody in Milwaukee finally admits they have no idea how to pay for a Bucks arena

How much of a mess are the funding plans for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena? So much that even Milwaukee Journal Sentinel arena-buildin’ reporter Don Walker is willing to say so:

Now, everything has become murky.

The owners have drawn a line in the sand with their current financial commitment.

Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a $220 million bonding plan, but spent most of his time on the presidential campaign trail.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has said the governor’s bonding number is too high; Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has said Walker’s plan was nearly dead, and he was working on an alternative.

Locally, one of the major tenants at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Marquette University, says it won’t put any money in the pot. The school says it prefers to be a tenant.

Mayor Tom Barrett has committed help, but says he doesn’t have money and won’t raise property taxes. County Executive Chris Abele says he doesn’t want to do anything that will “burden local taxpayers or result in cuts in services.”

Yes, it turns out that when you put up a $250 million Kickstarter for a new private basketball arena and the only rewards are NBA players continuing to pay their state income taxes, people don’t rush to throw coins in your jar.

Not that this means the Bucks arena plans are dead — rather, just that figuring out how to pay for buildings that almost never generate enough revenue to pay off their own construction bills is real hard. We now enter what could be thought of as the “flailing” phase of arena talks — though maybe the “racino phase” has a better ring to it — as marked by Gov. Walker already saying he’s open to any funding ideas that anybody has. Hey, there’s an idea: Crowdsource coming up with a way to pay for it! People are way more free with their ideas than they are with their $250 million.


18 comments on “Everybody in Milwaukee finally admits they have no idea how to pay for a Bucks arena

  1. I hope they wise the hell up & finally conclude the Bucks & the NBA should pay for a new arena, or that the current arena is fine.

  2. “…figuring out how to pay for buildings that almost never generate enough revenue to pay off their own construction bills is real hard.”

    Less of a problem if you’re not looking at the building as an entity separate from the team. The local restauranteur knows that having a building is just part of operating a restaurant.

  3. I’m particularly interested in the “ancillary development” they keep referring to. As someone who’s lived here in Milwaukee for awhile, I’m fairly secure in stating that this is not a downtown-centric city. After the business day is done and everyone leaves downtown for the evening, there’s not a lot going on. Heck, the major downtown shopping mall is having a hard time staying open; the business people swarming in for lunch each day are about the only thing propping it up.

    Especially the side of downtown where the current arena is located (and the new one is planned to go). Not a lot going on there unless there’s an event at the Bradley Center. Last year Centercourt Pub & Grille (which was located literally across the street) had to close since they didn’t get enough business. Turner Hall restaurant (also literally across the street) is now only open on nights when the arena has an event. Otherwise, there’s no point in being open in that part of town at night.

    The last thing that area needs are more restaurants, offices, or meeting spaces. Plenty of unused existing “development” for anyone interested!

  4. Keith: No, it’s still very much a problem. A restaurateur isn’t going to build an entirely new building and leave his old one if it’s not going to increase his revenues.

  5. Neil: Exactly. It’s not an issue if you’re not looking at it bassackwards. You don’t decide you need a $750 million arena then try to figure out a way to pay for it. You figure out how much of an arena you can afford given your business situation then build it. Or not. Everybody gets a little too caught up in the myth of what a new stadium or arena –has– to cost. And that gets any discussion of public support off on the wrong foot.

  6. Oh, I get what you’re saying now. Yes, the “problem” does go away if you change the question you’re asking from “How do we pay for this crazy expensive building?” to “How do we maximize everyone’s revenue?” since the latter allows for the possible answer “By not doing a damn thing, other than maybe putting a basketball team on the floor that people want to buy tickets to see.”

  7. I think the downtown Mke area is doing fairly well. I don’t think an arena will enhance it. The arena will fit very poorly with the develop around. On the east side of the river, there is an apartment boom. I don’t think we need to give land to these guys to develop.

  8. “We don’t know how to pay” – that’s essentially how all stadium plans begin. The taxpayer ends up being the backstop when there’s nowhere else to turn.

    I wonder… how popular are the Bucks in the city? (I ask because I don’t know – Milwaukee doesn’t strike me as an NBA town, and their popularity will have some impact on whether taxpayers will be happy to help out or not. )

  9. Bucks are not popular right now. However, Wisconsin sports fans love winners. The bucks have not won a playoff series since 2001 and there was huge dry spell before that. If they won, people would follow them. Herb Kohl ran the team into the ground.

    The Brewers made the playoffs twice since 1982 and people follow this team like crazy.

  10. I would say Milwaukee pays moderate attention to the team. While there’s some hope the new ownership breathes some life into the team, the general consensus seems to be to expect more of the same level of success (or lack thereof) going forward. With local high level (at times) college hoops, minor league hockey, the Brewers, and the Green Bay Packers, we’re not an area starving for sports.

    According to ESPN, last season the Bucks ranked 27th (out of 30) in lowest average attendance by percentage (with 72.1%). This season the Bucks are currently in 26th place with an average of 78.9%. Which is obviously an improvement (mostly due to the new coach, owners, and unexpected success early in the season) but still goes to show the town isn’t exactly crazy with Bucks fever.

  11. http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/report-arena-bond-costs-could-be-as-high-as-488-million-b99468487z1-297434821.html

  12. Rich – its because the team does not ever win. Its hard to follow a perennial loser. If the bucks won, people would go no matter where they played. When the bucks contended in the 80s, people packed the arena. When the packers stunk in the 80s, people did not go to the games.

  13. Brian – completely understood. My point was just more along the lines that as the team stands today (and probably the near future) there doesn’t seem to be a ton of excitement, nor diehard fans willing to plug that gap in the down years. Not the most opportune time to be threatening to leave to try and leverage big public spending.

    When the Packers did their recent stadium upgrade (and I admit at the moment I don’t recollect how that was planned for or financed) they did that right in the sweet spot of great team success on the field. And everyone loved it.

    But the Bucks are kind of like, meh, whatever.

    I admit this isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples for many many many reasons, but according to marquettewire.org toward the end of the 2014 season Marquette college basketball was averaging 15.2k attendees at the Bradley Center, while the professional Bucks team averaged 13.5k (the league bottom that season). I don’t think that a threat that the Bucks may walk will generate much panic for Joe six-pack around here.

  14. Rich – I agree. Fan interest is not there for the bucks. The packers financed the original renovation with a sales tax. The sales tax was a split decision, but it passed. The most recent upgrade was financed through a stock sale.

    The bucks situation is very similar to the brewers back in the late 90s. The brewers struggled to draw because the team did not have winning seasons since 1992. They built a new park that opened in 2001. Attendance was great in year 1 and then slid in year 2. The Seligs sold the team and the team started to play better. Fans came back in droves. The bucks use to sell out the Bradley Center back in 2001 when the team contended.

  15. Rich, I agree. Fan interest is not there for the bucks. The packers financed the original renovation with a sales tax. The sales tax was a split decision, but it passed. The most recent upgrade was financed through a stock sale.

    The bucks situation is very similar to the brewers back in the late 90s. The brewers struggled to draw because the team did not have winning seasons since 1992. They built a new park that opened in 2001. Attendance was great in year 1 and then slid in year 2. The Seligs sold the team and the team started to play better. Fans came back in droves. The bucks use to sell out the Bradley Center back in 2001 when the team contended.

  16. “When the packers stunk in the 80s, people did not go to the games.”

    Absolutely incorrect. The Packers sold out the entire 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, etc.

  17. Sure, if the Bucks were awesome, everyone would come. However, there aren’t very many awesome teams in the NBA, and only a few good ones.

    There’s a gap somewhere between “arena” and “good team” that is never bridged in these discussions. Is there slack cash in Milwaukee–a small city with a lot of teams–to divert to basketball on a year-in, year-out basis? The historical record indicates no.

  18. Selling out doesn’t mean the stadium was full. There were thousands of empty, but sold, seats during the Lynn Dickey years in Green Bay. Packer fans like to conveniently forget those years existed.