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Yesterday, David Uihlein, the son of BMO Harris Bradley Center benefactor Jane Bradley Pettit, released a public letter advocating that the community tear down the BMOBC, tear down the Arena (or Mecca or Milwaukee Panther Arena if you prefer) and also tear down the Milwaukee Theater. On said land should go a new arena wrote Uihlein.
Before going further, we encourage you to read the coverage of this letter by Don Walker at MJS here and/or the coverage by Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal here as both provide excellent summaries of the letter itself and background for our commentary below.
When we first saw this story, we tweeted out that it might be game-changer. No, a mere letter won’t build a new arena, but the content of the letter will bring about some needed dialogue on a number of fronts:
This Wasn’t a Rogue Action
Uihlein is plugged in locally and his family has been a major part of Milwaukee civic life for decades. The odds are strong that he vetted his letter with a number of influential parties before releasing it. The contents of the letter are a trial balloon to spur community discussion on a number of key issues. There is a segment of the business and political community that would like the new arena and entertainment complex to be located on the site proposed by Uihlein or a variant of that site that involves the Journal Communications building as we advocated for in our our piece last month.
The Letter Takes on Some Sacred Cows
Most of the primary sites for a new arena being discussed require demolition of existing buildings. Whether that building is the Grand Avenue Mall, the BMOBC, the existing Arena or the Journal Communications Building, something has to be torn down to make way for a new facility. The only site that wouldn’t require significant demolition is the vacant land in the Park East that most parties have said they do not believe is on the front burner.
Any building that is demolished to make way for a new arena is going to offend the constituency that uses said building currently. By having Jane Bradley Pettit’s son say that he is comfortable with seeing his family’s most significant legacy work to the community be torn down in the name of future civic development is a significant gesture that makes opposition by other groups whose buildings might be targeted for demolition seem petty by comparison. This was clearly a shot across the bow at Franklyn Gimbel, chairman of the Wisconsin Center District Board, who has insisted that both the Milwaukee Theater and Milwaukee Arena must stay under all circumstances. Gimbel has advocated that a new arena go to the north of the existing Bradley Center.
Uihlein’s comments have now also made it acceptable for the arena discourse to examine Gimbel’s stewardship of the significant taxing power and resources utilized over the past 20-years to construct and operate both the Wisconsin Center and the Milwaukee Theater. The Wisconsin Center has not lived up to the promises made when completed in 1998. There are legitimate questions as to the viability of Milwaukee as a major convention city, in part because of limitations of the Wisconsin Center. Further, the Milwaukee Theater opened to much fanfare in 2003, but has since struggled to attract regular concert and play business. $185 million in bonds were floated for the Wisconsin Center Construction and $41 million was issued for the Milwaukee Theater project, of which $27 million remain outstanding.
Uihlein highlights the fact that the community is not in a position to maintain so many concert and arena facilities and that some of the existing structures are simply going to have to come down, not only to provide a site for a new arena, but to eliminate the maintenance cost for buildings that will no longer have significant use once a new entertainment complex and arena is built.
Kilbourn Avenue Site a Bridge to the Park East
Uihlein further comments that by putting the new arena on Kilbourn Avenue, it could provide a bridge of activity that would later extend out to the vacant Park East land, ultimately bringing more development there someday. This argument appears to be the strongest one yet against building the new arena in the Park East or even building the new arena on the lot north of the BMOBC that the Bucks own; i.e. the thought that if you put the new arena in either of those locations, you will create a ghost town of sparsely used buildings (The BMOBC, Milwaukee Arena and Milwaukee Theater) that will act as somewhat of a physical barrier, making a new entertainment complex and arena be on an island in the Park East area and not connected to the core of downtown activity.
Funding Sources Also Discussed
In the letter Uihlein suggests that the private sector step up in helping fund costs of the building. He hints at the potential of some level of personal donation but also hints at having the building be part of a revamped Wisconsin Center District, providing taxing power to provide on-going funding for new arena operating costs. This leads back to Gimbel and his stewardship of said district. Kansas City was able to construct their new NBA-ready arena, The Sprint Center, based on taxes raised from a hotel and rental car tax imposed on visitors rather than property or sales taxes. Early on in the Milwaukee arena debate, some pundits suggested Milwaukee utilize the funding mechanism implemented by Kansas City, but then realized that the Wisconsin Center District already has imposed significant hotel and rental car taxes to fund their own operations and the aforementioned Milwaukee Theater and Wisconsin Center projects. In other words, as a community we may have already spent much of that taxing “powder” on the two facilities Gimbel oversees.
Whether you agree or disagree with the thoughts voiced by Uihlein, he is taking the new arena debate to the next stage and forcing the community to debate topics as to a Kilbourn Avenue site and Wisconsin Center District Funding mechanism. All of this is good for the process, regardless of where the new facility is ultimately located or how it is paid for.
In the meantime, the Bucks first exhibition game is now less than two-weeks away. The season is almost upon us. Go Bucks!