Virginia Small, a researcher on public-interest issues and volunteer teacher at the Dominican Center for Women, write that Milwaukee’s Common Council should designate funding only for arena construction, not public-asset giveaways.
State and county funding has assured construction of a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. City residents will help pay for this arena through taxation by the state, county, city and the Wisconsin Center District (WCD), which supports conventions and tourism.
Milwaukee’s Common Council will soon review and vote on an independent funding package, possibly as soon as Sept. 22. Three public hearings will be held starting Aug. 31.
Virtually all proposed city funding would assist the Milwaukee Bucks in creating a vast entertainment monopoly beyond the arena. That would include so-called public plazas controlled by the Bucks or its affiliates.
Mayor Tom Barrett wants the city to subsidize a Bucks-owned, for-profit “entertainment” mall through a pretzel-like scheme designed for the Bucks’ gain and taxpayers’ loss. The city would raze its 4th Street garage (built for $30 million), give the land to the Bucks, and build a new garage two blocks away. Taxpayers would inexplicably split parking income with the billionaire Bucks owners.
As a separate issue, the mayor has voiced concern that the state’s deal heavily burdens the WCD, which could hurt Milwaukee’s convention and tourism business. To remedy that, the Common Council could insist that city funding only support arena construction and reduce WCD’s borrowing.
To that end, residents should urge Common Council members to consider the following:
- Don’t subsidize an “entertainment” mall and government interference in commerce. Some 60 bars and restaurants, many with distinctive local character, are within a half-mile of the arena (not counting coffee shops and Grand Avenue eateries). The Bucks want subsidies for a block-long, multi-floor mall with at least 75 percent national chains. They intend to build “the country’s biggest outdoor sports bar” plus other pubs and restaurants.No independent economic impact and market analysis has been conducted about this project. Over-saturation is a constant threat to hospitality businesses. Nonetheless, the mayor insists, “You can’t have too many bars and restaurants, as long as they’re all walkable from each other.” Existing businesses are likely to suffer, especially those on Old World Third and Water streets; mall vendors could flounder; or both.No evidence supports the Bucks’ claims that a mall would draw more people downtown 365 days a year. Where would thousands of new patrons come from daily? To create more demand, area residents must collectively have more discretionary income to spend on entertainment, which UWM economist Marc Levine reported recently is not happening.
- Retain the city’s lucrative 4th Street garage. It defies fiscal and common sense to underwrite this proposed entertainment mall by donating/razing the city’s 4th Street parking complex and building a new $35-million facility. Instead, the city should keep the garage and $1 million in annual income. Applying that $35 million in savings to arena construction costs would decrease borrowing by the Wisconsin Center District to $58 million.
- Don’t fund $20 million to build pseudo-public plazas. One would be within a Bucks mall and another between the arena and a proposed mall (now North 4th Street between Highland and Juneau avenues). The state’s arena bill says such plazas would be used to generate revenue exclusively for the Bucks. Thus, those spaces could never be used for festivals and markets with vendors other than the Bucks and their affiliates. (Other than a couple drawings, no mall specifics were available at this writing.)Democracy takes place in parks. When a plaza’s activities, access and commerce are controlled by a corporate entity, it ceases to be truly public space.Bucks owners can well afford to build their own plazas within and around their for-profit enterprises, just as other businesses do. The state and county will already hand over about 21 acres of now-public land for the Bucks owners’ private gain, plus nine acres for a Bucks-controlled arena. Enough is enough. Milwaukee has too few neighborhood parks and too many that are crumbling.
- Don’t hand over to Bucks owners, for free, the one-acre former Sydney Hih lot, which the city paid $1 million to acquire in 2012. There would be zero taxpayer benefit in this transfer of public land. The city needs to receive market value for this parcel — from the Bucks or another developer. A contorted financing scheme would even have taxpayers ultimately pay Bucks owners for this site and the 4th Street garage.Instead, selling this prime lot directly to a developer with an immediate viable plan would yield money for the city and much-swifter development. Sale proceeds could be used for parks or recreation facilities.
- Require meaningful community benefits. Advocates for good jobs want the city to address this need. Lawmakers and the Bucks should ensure the arena project serves citizens and the community at large — not just the Bucks. It’s not enough to simply create construction jobs.
The New York Times recently recounted layers upon layers of “house-warming gifts” taxpayers are providing Bucks owners Jamie Dinan, Wes Edens and Marc Lasry.
The gifts go way beyond announced public-asset giveaways and $250 million in cash borrowing, which will cost taxpayers at least $400 million with interest. Many planned city subsidies are barely mentioned.
It’s whispered that the council will simply go along with the proposed deal, as other politicians have done. However, there’s no reason for elected representatives to act as rubber-stampers. Democracy is a use-it-or-lose-it public enterprise. It’s up to citizens to petition their representatives, whether in person, by email or phone.
Public hearings will take place in Room 301-B of City Hall, 200 E. Wells St. Citizens will be allowed to speak briefly. The first meeting, of the council’s Steering Committee, will take place on Monday, Aug. 31, at 4. p.m.