Bucks arena finally gets final approval (pay no attention to the fine print)

The Milwaukee city council, after two months of debate and contentious public hearings, cast its vote on city subsidies for a parking garage and team-controlled pedestrian plaza for a new Bucks arena this morning, and … come on, what did you really expect?

A $47 million city spending plan for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena won Common Council approval Tuesday, the final endorsement needed for a $250 million public financing package that includes state and county cash.

The council voted 12-3 Tuesday to approve the plan, with Ald. Mark Borkowski, Ald. Nik Kovac and Ald. Tony Zielinski in opposition.

The passage of the city cash has been a fait accompli for a while now. The big question was what would happen to Ald. Bob Bauman’s proposal to amend the plan so that it would no longer permanently close North 4th Street and give the resulting pedestrian plaza over to the Bucks. And the result was, according to one correspondent who was there, that nothing was actually resolved about that: The question of whether the pedestrian plaza will be year-round or only on game days was kicked back to the city Department of Public Works, which has say over such matters, and which will now need to have its own set of hearings and whatnot. Which the Bucks owners presumably won’t like, but what are they going to do, turn down half a billion bucks out of spite?

The other big unknown that remains for the Bucks arena — other than the final design, which the council will get to sign off on later this fall, but that’s even less likely to provide fireworks (aside from any that are unleashed by the magic basketball) — is the team’s lease, and in particular whether it will include an agreement with any teeth to keep the team from leaving town before the building is paid off. Or threatening to leave town, which can be just as bad, as Indianapolis found out to its dismay. The city council didn’t have any say over the lease language, so it’s going to come down to negotiations between the governor’s office and the Bucks. At least Scott Walker has plenty of time to spend on this now, right? And surely he’ll drive a hard bargain, since it’s not like he has a conflict of interest or anything.

Even after $450m in arena subsidies, Bucks could still leave Milwaukee

The deal to provide the Milwaukee Bucks owners with $450 million in city, county, and state subsidies for a new arena in exchange for staying put in the city may be even worse than anyone thought: As it turns out, that whole “staying put in the city” thing is less of a commitment than a breakable promise:

Milwaukee Common Council president Ald. Michael Murphy believes taxpayers should get stronger protections in case the Milwaukee Bucks would leave town before the $250 million public debt is paid off on the arena project.

The arena-funding legislation Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed Aug. 12 allows public entities to sue the team’s owners for damages if the Bucks relocate. Murphy said that doesn’t go far enough.

Yeah, no kidding it’s weak. A really ironclad lease agreement — see St. Petersburg’s deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for example — sets monetary penalties for leaving early, up to and including repaying all the public money that you got in order to stay. Merely allowing the local government to sue for damages is much, much weaker, especially if the owners of the Bucks do like the owners of the former Seattle Sonics did and switch gears to arguing that there’s no way to prove an economic benefit to cities from the presence of a sports team. Which would be ironic, needless to say, but you can’t sue for irony, even in America.

The Milwaukee city council has no jurisdiction over the Bucks arena lease, so Murphy has stuck to expressing his concerns in a strongly worded letter to the chair of the Wisconsin Center District Board. “I’ll be surprised if he signs a lease without tightening the restrictions,” Murphy told the Milwaukee Business Journal. I, for one, will be less surprised, but I suppose there’s always hope.

Bucks arena opening delayed until 2018, council reconsiders team-controlled plaza

The Milwaukee Bucks arena plan is creeping its way through the city council, and while so far all signs are that the city’s $47 million in subsidies will be approved — it’s passed two committees so far, and goes to the full council on Tuesday — there have been a couple of speed bumps:

  • Alderman Bob Bauman successfully introduced an amendment that would allow the pedestrian plaza in front of the arena to be open to traffic on non-event days. This is a problem, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, because “the arena is being designed with a focus on heavy pedestrian traffic on that block, including using the plaza at nonevent times for ticket sales and other activities, a Bucks source said.”
  • The arena now won’t open until 2018 instead of 2017 as originally planned.

The delayed opening isn’t a huge deal — it’s not like Bucks fans will be hugely put out by having to go to games at the Bradley Center for another year. As for the pedestrian plaza, this is shaping up to be one of those battles over privatizing use of a public street, a la the Boston Red Sox‘ use of Yawkey Way, that are increasingly cropping up as team owners realize they don’t need to restrain their ambitions at their stadium walls. A reasonable solution would be for the Bucks to pay rent on the street if they really want dibs on it — the Sox are paying less than $1 million a year, which is chump change as these things go — but we may be way past the point of negotiating reasonable solutions, and even Bauman said he’s not sure his amendment will survive a full council vote. We’ll find out more on Tuesday.

Milwaukee County sells $8.8m in land to Bucks for one dollar, swears this is best deal ever

So let’s see, anything new with the almost-approved-but-still-t’s-to-be-crossed Milwaukee Bucks arena?

Milwaukee leaders plan to announce that a chunk of downtown land has been sold to the city’s NBA team for $1 as part of the drive to build the Bucks a new arena complex.

The land was appraised at $8.8 million, but Abele’s office says that doesn’t factor in $8.3 million worth of needed demolition and infrastructure work.

Well, okay, that’s not too terrible, right? Sure, it’s free land, but if it would cost almost as much as the value of the land to get it in shape, and now the Bucks will be taking on that cost, then—

But the release left out the fact that the city is on the hook for undetermined costs, as noted by a city comptroller’s report, “Coordination between Bucks, Milwaukee County, the State of Wisconsin, MMSD, and the City of Milwaukee to remove footings in the Park East Land and to relocate a sewer in the Park East Land to Juneau Avenue – A Cost estimate cannot be determined at this time.” But at a celebratory event like this, no one was computing the exact amount this would leave the Bucks to pay for remediation of the land.

No one was computing it! Certainly not any of the journalists writing about the celebratory event, even through the comptroller’s report came out two weeks ago, which is more than enough time to, you know, call some expert in sewer relocation and ask for a ballpark number. Though at least Urban Milwaukee (the second citation above) noted the known unknowns — the Associated Press report, which unless I’m mistaken is all that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published about this land sale, just took Abele completely at his word, which is pretty bad even for a five-sentence article.

Anyway, the deed is now done, so Milwaukee County will be getting a crisp new George Washington, and the Bucks owners will be building an “anciliary development” to include a practic facility, and, um, some other stuff they haven’t actually drawn yet. Or will have an option to do so, anyway, since that’s all that the $1 really secured. But at least everyone concerned knows what they’re getting into, and that any actual development could be a ways off at best—

“This is creating thousands of jobs now. Right now.” Abele said he ran on a program of creating jobs, and now look what we’re getting. “Thousands of jobs now. Right now,” he repeated.

You know what they say: Repetition is the mother of … something.

Milwaukee residents continue to berate Bucks arena deal at latest public hearing

The Milwaukee city council held its first public committee hearing on the Milwaukee Bucks arena plan yesterday, and as at the council’s previous public town hall meetings, there was lots of unhappiness at the already-approved-by-the-state-but-not-yet-the-city deal:

“Buck owners Mark Lasry, Wesley Edens and Jamie Dinan are New York billionaire hedge-fund owners who have the resources to build this arena themselves,” Jennifer O’Hear, speaking for Common Ground, told members of the Common Council’s Steering & Rules Committee.

“They do not need our public money,” she said. “Our children and our neighborhoods need our public money.”

Okay, that’s Common Ground, which has been harping on this whole “schoolkids need more money than billionaires” thing for a while now. (Come on, what do schoolkids have to spend money on? It’s not like they could even drive a yacht if they had one!) What about the hoi polloi, the average Joe, the person on the street?

One speaker after another panned the idea.

“It’s trickle-down economics,” Mary Watkins said. “We are hurting. We cannot afford to put millions of dollars in a project billionaires can build on their own.”

Several speakers said they were opposed to the entertainment district, which they thought would cannibalize existing bars and taverns.

“I have long accepted that the ship has sailed and the arena will be built,” Pat Small testified.

“Downtown has no shortage of bars and restaurants,” he said. There is “no need to subsidize the entertainment district.”

Peter Rickman, of Wisconsin Jobs Now, told council members: “Milwaukee has a good jobs problem.”

He urged council members to hold the Bucks accountable for living wages and for workers’ rights, both during the construction of the arena and its facilities, and once those facilities were built and staffed with waiters, janitors and housekeepers.

On the other hand, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “business and labor leaders” said the arena would be a “catalytic project,” presumably by means of something like this. The full council is expected to vote on the plan on September 22, at which point we’ll find out whose opinions they listen to.

Scott Walker goes on TV, tries to justify building all sorts of crazy things

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker went on Meet the Press yesterday, and they actually asked him about the Milwaukee Bucks arena subsidy deal that he pushed through. His answer was unsurprising:

“For the state of Wisconsin, it’s less than $4 million a year to protect $6.5 million we collect. And over the next 20 years, that grows to a total of just shy of $300 million the state collects in income taxes for less than $80 million,” he said. “I’d be a fool.”

This is the “cheaper to keep it” line again, and we’ve covered the problems with it before: First off, that $300 million figure for future state income taxes is made up out of whole cloth, and almost certainly hugely overblown. And secondly, the $80 million (I have $75 million, but whatever) in state subsidies is only a small fraction of the $450 million in state, county, and city cash and tax breaks that will be going to the Bucks owners, meaning even by Walker’s numbers, Wisconsin taxpayers overall would be taking a large loss on the deal, even if the state treasury in particular might come out okay.

Fortunately for Walker, he distracted voters from his crazy-ass arena math by elsewhere in the interview calling building a wall across the Canadian border “a legitimate issue for us to look at.” To be entirely fair, Walker was just agreeing with Meet the Press host Chuck Todd’s question that “Why are we always talking about the southern border, and building a fence there — we don’t talk about the northern border?” Though to be even more fair, saying things that are no more crazy than Chuck Todd isn’t exactly something worth bragging about.

Now that Scott Walker has okayed Bucks subsidies, Milwaukee residents get to say they hate them

Scott Walker may have signed the state portion of the Milwaukee Bucks arena funding bill, but the Milwaukee city council still needs to sign off on it too. And unlike the state’s round of discussion, which mostly consisted of lots of top officials gathering behind closed doors, the city seems determined to have more public hearings, which means Milwaukee residents can express how pleased they are that there’s a deal to keep their beloved NBA team in town:

“I can’t even afford to go to a Bucks game,” said Cherri Hampton, who lives near N. 20th St. and W. Capitol Drive, well north of the proposed arena site. “I think my money should go to the Milwaukee Police Department so they can protect my neighborhood.”

“We’re looking to cut education, but we come up with money to buy an arena for millionaires. It doesn’t add up to me as a regular citizen,” said Gilbert Johnson, lives near 30th and Michigan.

Feel the excitement!

Alderperson Milele Coggs told the crowd that the deal is “not done” and “I have not made up my mind”; it’s unlikely that the council will try to make significant changes at this point, regardless of what their constituents say, but unlikely isn’t quite impossible. A final vote is expected on September 22.


Scott Walker to sign Bucks subsidy bill, still hates public spending except when it’s for NBA arenas

Normally once an arena subsidy is approved, everybody stops paying attention until construction is actually underway and everyone can ooh and ahh about all the exciting glass planes and cupholders and what have you. Not, though, when it involves a Republican presidential candidate — and with pretty much the entire U.S. population having announced as a Republican presidential candidate, what doesn’t involve one of them?

And so we have the weekly parade of “Scott Walker is still a hypocrite about public spending” articles:

Tomorrow, Scott Walker will stand on a stage at State Fair Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and betray virtually every conservative economic principle there is by handing out up to $450 million in taxpayer money to wealthy sports owners to pay for private infrastructure at a time when public infrastructure is crumbling.


Governor Scott Walker’s fiscal conservatism will collide with the reality of sports-team subsidies tomorrow when he commits Wisconsin taxpayers to pay $400 million for a new basketball arena.

At Wednesday’s signing, the Republican presidential candidate’s message of being a tightfisted taxpayer champion will be weighed against public costs spread over 20 years.

All true enough, though it’s worth noting that being a self-proclaimed “tightfisted taxpayer champion” has never been a roadblock to approving spending on things that conservatives like.

Mostly, I’m excited that the Salon piece above actually accounts for the roughly $200 million in property tax breaks that the Bucks will be getting as part of the deal, instead of taking the official party line that it’s “$250 million in public money” as gospel. (Salon actually links to Field of Schemes as its source, which is fine, but I’d be happy however they calculated it so long as they included tax expenditures too.) Maybe, just maybe, we’re moving toward a time when the news media try to figure out the total costs of deals and report them that way, rather than take team owners and their political allies at their word. Wisconsin taxpayers would still be out $450 million, of course, but at least they’d have a better sense how much lighter their wallets were.

Scott Walker says giving Bucks $450m in tax money is “protecting taxpayers,” words have no meaning now

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is set to sign the Bucks arena bill today, and he couldn’t resist a defense of how giving around $450 million in state, county, and city subsidies and tax breaks to the Bucks owners was an offer too good for him to refuse:

“It’s critical not only for those who love sports, but the main reason I got into it was because it protected state revenues,” Walker said last week, citing the income taxes Wisconsin would lose if the team leaves the state. “That just creates a big hole for everything else. …This was really about protecting the taxpayers of the state.”

We’ve heard this before, of course — it’s the basis of Walker’s whole “cheaper to keep them” p.r. campaign — and I’ve debunked it at length for Vice Sports, if you care to hear all the reasons why it’s crazy. (Though given that Walker managed to fob off most of the Bucks arena costs onto the city and county, he could maybe make a case that he did protect state taxpayers, if by state taxpayers you mean only those who don’t live in Milwaukee County.) For now, though, just enjoy the simple pleasure of one of the most dedicated foes of government spending on anything defending $450 million on a private basketball arena as “protecting the taxpayers.” And then watch Tom Ziller‘s head rightfully explode with outrage.

Wisconsin assembly decides it’s too hot to change Bucks arena bill, votes it in without debate

As expected, the Wisconsin state assembly easily passed the Milwaukee Bucks arena bill yesterday, 52-34; as slightly less expected, it didn’t make even insignificant changes to the language, or debate it in the slightest, just straight-up voting on what the state senate passed last week:

“I’m ready to go home,” [Rep. Dean] Knudson said. “We’re here in the summer. It wasn’t going to change anything.”

The arena deal now heads to Gov. Scott Walker, who will certainly sign it, though there’s some calls for him to veto the part of the bill that will direct part of a ticket tax to the state instead of the state-run arena district, which has to be the least interesting amendment possible to the deal unless you work in the arena district budget office. Next up would be Milwaukee’s city council, which is headed by that opposition leader from The Thick of It, and which isn’t expected to throw up any significant roadblocks either. It won’t vote until September, though, so expect lots more public squabbles in the interim over things that don’t really matter and don’t ultimately change anything, because that’s what elected officials do when they want to seem important but don’t want to rock any boats.