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How the Bucks Could Change Milwaukee

Jul. 2, 2014
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Being responsible for the entire future of NBA basketball in Milwaukee is a lot to put on the shoulders of even an outstanding young player like Jabari Parker, but, believe it or not, a lot more than that could depend upon the young star.

How about the possibility of completely redesigning the city we live in?

Up until now, enthusiasm about building a new basketball arena in Milwaukee mostly has been limited to a few special interests—the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which could write off new, hefty-priced seats as business expenses, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose advertising and broadcast profits depend upon professional sports.

But, suddenly, some new players arriving in town are increasing the possibilities. Two of them are billionaires—Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, the new owners who paid $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Add the arrival of Parker, the No. 2 draft pick, a terrific player and upright citizen, and NBA star Jason Kidd, who will be the Bucks’ next coach.

Forget what you hear about the difficulty of one player, even one as exciting as Parker, turning a bad team around.

Despite the Bucks’ miserable record this season, the select group of fans who watched them know the team already has some very good young players, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Knight and Nate Wolters. That also includes Larry Sanders, if he can avoid injury and self-inflicted goofiness.

Talent plus some real money—$100 million from Lasry and Edens and another $100 million from former owner Herb Kohl toward a new arena that could cost anywhere from $400 million to several hundred million more—increase the likelihood of actual construction.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the political opposition of Gov. Scott Walker to raising taxes to do anything benefiting Milwaukee, opposition of surrounding counties to paying anything for all the Milwaukee amenities they enjoy for free, and opposition of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Chris Abele to having their own hard-pressed taxpayers bear the public costs alone.


Build Up Menomonee Valley

But what if there were a way to attract outside money to build an arena/entertainment complex that could completely reconfigure the city as we know it without any direct cost to taxpayers?

I have to give credit for this idea to my friend Gerard Randall, my Republican debating partner on the weekly Milwaukee Public Television show “InterChange.” (Yes, I do have Republican friends.)

Additional hundreds of millions of dollars over an extended period could come from the Potawatomi, who already make payments in lieu of taxes to operate their gambling casino in the Menomonee Valley.

Why would the tribe contribute that kind of money? To get two things it wants very badly.

One would be to have a new arena/entertainment complex built nearby in the Menomonee Valley that would deliver thousands of new customers to its casino after basketball games and major concerts, instead of watching suburbanites flee Milwaukee as fast as they can, as they do now.

The other—and here’s how Walker could become a momentary hero without spending any money—is that the governor, who has the final say, could turn down a bid by the Menominee tribe to build a competing casino in Kenosha.

(The only reason Walker hasn’t already announced a decision was to continue to pump both tribes for campaign contributions prior to November’s election.)

It’s a politically attractive idea for many of those involved, especially the no-tax-increase part. Other details in a grand plan include convention center expansion and eventually Marquette University and UW-Milwaukee sharing the Bradley Center.

But the most dramatic change could be the continued expansion of the Menomonee Valley as Milwaukee’s dominant entertainment center.

There’s risk involved. Anyone visiting Las Vegas or Atlantic City knows you never want to wander far off the Strip or the Boardwalk. If we shift most of the city’s major attractions into the Valley, will the rest of Downtown dry up and blow away?

Downtown already is being abandoned as a retail center. The only way the city can get a major department store to remain Downtown is to pay it not to leave.

The problem is not insolvable, but it will take vision and planning. One change already is slowly transforming vacant retail space into smaller hotels and permanent residences.

The Menomonee Valley once was a toxic industrial wasteland of smelly rendering plants on the banks of our own River Styx.

It took a lot of imagination to see it as a regional and national destination with hotels, the Potawatomi Casino and the Harley-Davidson Museum. A major new arena and entertainment complex could be another giant step.

Besides, it’s about time that stadiums costing hundreds of millions of dollars were paid for by the billionaires and millionaires who reap enormous profits from them, instead of city residents whose needs are ignored by tax-cutting politicians.


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