Milwaukee business groups rally around Bucks arena deal

Associated Press

June 9, 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks about a deal to pay for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks at a news conference Thursday, June 4, 2015, in Madison, Wis.
Associated Press


MADISON, Wis. The Legislature must act quickly to approve a $500 million financing deal to pay for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena or the agreement could fall apart, raising the prospect of more delays and the possible loss of the NBA team, community business and labor leaders said Monday.

Milwaukee area leaders came to the Capitol on Monday to make their pitch for the new Bucks arena at a news conference and in private meetings with lawmakers. The financing deal announced on Thursday by Gov. Scott Walker, Republican legislative leaders and Milwaukee officials must be approved by the Legislature and Milwaukee Common Council.

"We need the jobs, the tax revenue and economic vitality this project will create," said Ralph Hollmon, president of the Milwaukee Urban League. "We should view it as an investment in our future."

The plan has come under criticism from some conservatives because it relies on a $250 million contribution from taxpayers, which could grow to $400 million with interest. Current and former owners of the Bucks have committed another $250 million and will cover any cost overruns.

Lawmakers have been talking privately about whether there's support to put the financing plan in the state budget or break it out separately. The $70 billion state budget is expected to pass later this month, and some backers of the Bucks deal worry that breaking it out into a separate bill could delay action for months or longer, putting the deal in jeopardy.

"Our overriding preference is to get this done," said Steve Baas, lobbyist for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. "There are certainly land mines that go with pulling it from the budget that make it more difficult."

The NBA could choose to buy the Bucks and relocate it if there isn't significant progress toward building a new arena by 2017.

Walker, a likely presidential candidate, has argued for months that it will cost the state more in lost income-tax revenue if the NBA team leaves Milwaukee than it will to pay for a new downtown arena. Walker put the potential loss at $419 million over 20 years, while state taxpayers' costs under the new arena deal are capped at $80 million.

Under the announced deal, the city would contribute $47 million, including building a new parking structure. The county would also issue $55 million in bonds and the Wisconsin Center District would issue $93 million in bonds.

Walker unveiled the deal last week using the slogan "It's Cheaper to Keep Them." The chambers of commerce, union and business leaders, real estate agents and others who held Monday's news conference rallied around a different theme: "Play it Forward."

"At the end of the day this is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue," Hollmon said. "This is an economic issue."

All of those working on the arena deal, including Walker and politicians along with those at Monday's news conference, said they were trying to educate the public about the deal to convince them of its merits.

"At the end of the day, we really need the community to get behind this important opportunity," Hollmon said.