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WI Senate approves new Bucks arena funding plan

New Milwaukee Bucks arena

By a surprisingly wide 21-10 vote, the Wisconsin State Senate approved a $250-million new Milwaukee Bucks arena funding plan, with the state Assembly expected to take it up in coming weeks.

There’s been a ton of drama surrounding the arena proposal, which combines contributions from the state ($40 million), the city, a new authority overseeing downtown arenas and the convention center, and Milwaukee County into the public funding portion of the $500 million arena project. Essentially, it’s a public-private partnership of equal weights: team owners and former owner Herb Kohl will put up $250 million as well. The drama occurred in the final days of legislative debate over the next state budget, when it was decided that the Bucks arena funding would be removed from consideration and debated on its own merits. It was also one of the few political issues in Wisconsin politics that was not tainted by partisan bickering: the 21 senators voting for the measure included six Democrats, while only three Republicans voted against it. (The high number of Republicans voting for the measure is a surprise.) From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

“This deal has taken a lot of work, but the Bucks are big bucks for Wisconsin,” said Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), who voted for the plan. “It’s not been easy. It’s not been pretty. But finally, we’ve all been at the table.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), who worked for months on the deal, said lawmakers outside southeastern Wisconsin helped make the difference by taking the political risk to support it. He acknowledged they could see the issue raised when they run for re-election.

“There’s some outstate legislators who showed a lot of courage today,” he said.

The Bucks arena plan would have the state directly borrowing $55 million toward the arena construction, with the Wisconsin Center District — which runs the convention center and Milwaukee Theatre and would add this arena as well as oversight of BMO Harris Bradley Center and Milwaukee Center for Performing Arts to its portfolio – would float $93 million in bonds. The city would create a TIF district and build a parking ramp, putting Milwaukee on the hook for some $47 million. The total public money would be capped at $250 million. The Bucks owners and Kohl would put up at least $250 million and cover any overages. There is a sense of urgency to the process: the NBA holds an option to buy the team (and, presumably, sell it to Seattle or Las Vegas interests) if a new arena isn’t in place by 2017.

The arguments put forward by arena advocates: we lose the Bucks, we lose the revenues the team also provides; and a new arena could help economic development in a run-down, underused part of downtown Milwaukee. (One that is picking up: just blocks away, the Pabst Brewery will be running once again.) Indeed, the Park East corridor has the potential to strengthen what is already a rebounding downtown Milwaukee economy.

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