With the new owners of the Milwaukee Bucks (NBA) looking at a billion-dollar development that includes an arena, team president Peter Feigin is calling for some level of public assistance for the project.
It’s clear that BMO Harris Bradley Center is approaching a financially obsolete status: former team owner Herb Kohl struggled to break even while running a shoestring operation, and new owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry made their purchase knowing a new arena was needed — pledging $150 million toward a new facility. Kohl, the team’s former owner and a former U.S. senator known for his largesse (see: Kohl Center, University of Wisconsin), has pledged $100 million toward a new arena. And, given that a new arena will cost between $450 million and $500 million, having at least $250 million pledged in a back pocket is a good start.
But Feigin, Eden and Lasry are thinking big. Instead of just envisioning a new downtown Milwaukee arena, they’re looking at a billion-dollar development that includes retail, restaurants and more. Now, downtown Milwaukee isn’t exactly boomtown: the Third Ward is definite signs of life, but overall Milwaukee is still a very struggling city. Turning downtown Milwaukee into a definite destination will be a challenge, and to their credit Eden and Lasry are tackling the issue. (Indeed, the easier path would be to site a new arena out in the suburbs.) But that commitment to the city’s urban center will come at a price, per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
While a new arena is expected to cost between $400 million and $500 million, the new building holds the potential to be a catalyst to more than $1 billion in additional development in the form of new retail, residential and commercial space, he said.
“We wouldn’t get that without assistance,” Feigin said.
Asked how much land the Bucks would need for a new arena, plus anticipated ancillary development, Feigin said the franchise wants to have as large a footprint as possible in order to “make it as opportunistic as we can.”
“We are putting the pieces together,” Feigin said in connection with the work to locate a site, then develop a financial model and then gain legislative approval. He said navigating the public-private partnership, and working with the city, county and state can slow the timetable.
The biggest challenge: generating enough positive public opinion to persuade elected officials to commit to some level of public financing. Bradley Center got built via private contributions, and while some of that money may be around, Feigin has been explicit about the public financing. Wisconsin government is incredibly dysfunctional, and with a Republican-controlled state government that largely ran against Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and Madison, the chances of putting together a deal that includes some level of state support is a challenge.
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