find a way: an open letter to milwaukee and wisconsin on the milwaukee bucks arena


On Thursday, 4 June, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker held a presentation in Madison. Flanked by fellow politicians and Milwaukee leaders, Walker stated the case in partnering to get a deal done with the Milwaukee Bucks to build a new arena. This morning, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an editorial stating their cautious endorsement of making this development a reality.

I agree with the editorial staff: the details should merit strong scrutiny. I also agree that, if the details bear weight, this is a deal that needs to get done.

Predictably, the comments to that editorial are filled with reflexive and reptilian polemicist claptrap. Rather than respond there, I choose to respond here.

First, with this kind of opportunity, no one in their right mind leaves that much private money on the table. Former Bucks owner and US Senator Herb Kohl, and current principal owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry have pledged $250 million of their own wealth. Kohl and Edens/Lasry are putting up a considerable amount of their considerable wealth to make this happen. That’s not only noble, but a good faith gesture to the region and state. If you have half the cost of anything–a house, a car, a business–in place, you find a way to punch that deal through. By comparison, this is a much better deal for the city and state than Miller Park ever was.

(The ESPN/AP report’s headline is misleading: taxpayers may be responsible for up to half of the cost, should there be delays or cost overruns. The $500M figure, as I understand it, includes contingencies. There is public precedent for doing this kind of thing the right way; thousands of cars drive it every day. Another major public project, the reconstruction of I-94 and the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee, was completed early and under budget, one of a scant few praises anyone should have for former governor Bingo Jim Doyle.)

Also, it merits mentioning that no one found it grundy-inducing for the Green Bay Packers to do extensive expansion and renovations to Lambeau Field on the public dime twice. What are the Packers, or the Milwaukee Brewers, that the Bucks aren’t?

Second, fully publicly financed stadiums and arenas have overwhelmingly been a poor ROI, I will concede that point. Private-public partnerships, though, have not been such a dramatic boondoggle on the whole, partially because of the built-in accountability that tends to come from direct oversight in a healthy business. Current Bucks ownership has streamlined and modernized the business and gone to considerable lengths in their pilot year to be good corporate citizens. There is no reason to think they would not be good stewards of this project as well.

Third, by keeping the Bucks, an unquestionably ascendant NBA team, it guarantees a continued draw of interest, bodies and money to Milwaukee, keeps a percentage of wealth in Wisconsin to be spent in Wisconsin, generating tax revenues to be used to support the community and state as a whole and, coincidentally, help retire the Miller Park tax/debt. This is as opposed to high-speed rail, which only facilitates travel en route from to B. A midpoint is not a destination, and if California’s rail debacle is any indication…well, let’s just try to avoid being like California government in any way, shape or form.

Finally, the model new developments such as this are following is Kansas City’s Sprint Center, which not only has assisted revitalizing KC’s downtown, but has regularly turned a profit (independent economic impact report available here, and yes, that is independent) for the city and stakeholders, all without a full-time tenant in the arena. The criticisms of these reports are your garden variety fallacies: question begging and poisoning the well. One gets the sense that as soon as Walker came on board, others jumped off, which is as short-sighted as it is foolish.

People are free and welcome to disagree with me on this; it is my hope that their reasons are offered in good faith and are worthy of the kinds of scrutiny the Bucks arena deal will be getting in upcoming days and weeks. I should be clear, again, that if there are problems with the agreement, I agree it must go back to the drawing board. Frankly, in an admittedly cursory review of the plan, I don’t see any.

After clearing those hurdles, though, it has to be a green light. A Good Land Green light.

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