It was heralded as a win for Governor Scott Walker and Milwaukee area politicians in 2015 – securing the legislature’s approval for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena to replace the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center. The funding plan included $250 million in state taxpayer funding, and it initially looked like a tough sell.
The road to a new arena for Wisconsin’s NBA team began in April of 2014, when longtime Bucks owner Herb Kohl agreed to sell a majority interest of the team to New York-based billionaires Wesley Edens, and Marc Lasry for $550 million dollars. Bucks President Peter Feigin made it clear what would happen if the arena didn’t get built.
It was, Walker said, “cheaper to keep them.” That was the actual slogan employed to sell the new arena to a skeptical public. It didn’t help that the Bucks ended the 2014 season with a record of 15-and-67 – the worst in team history.
“There was a provision in the sale contract that gives the NBA the right to buy the team, if we don’t get a new arena,” Feigin told state lawmakers. State and local leaders including Milwaukee Democrats, Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Chris Abele, huddled in the executive wing at the Capitol this past April, but emerged without a deal.
Republican lawmakers didn’t miss out on an opportunity to blame the impasse on Milwaukee’s Democratic administration. “We need the city especially to show its leadership, and the county to team up,” said state Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). “This has been way too long. The lack of leadership on this issue is very concerning, but it isn’t surprising.”
As dire as the outlook was in April, by July a funding package was ready for a public hearing before the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. Feigin told committee members that the new arena to replace the aging and inadequate Bradley Center would result in thousands of construction jobs and up to 2,000 permanent jobs.
“This, in my personal opinion, is a great deal for the state,” said Feigin. He was accompanied to the hearing by Bucks General Manager John Hammond and coach Jason Kidd. The Bucks secured the coaching rights for Kidd from the Brooklyn Nets – a move that was seen as a sign the team was serious about improving the on-court product.
The financing package, which called for taxpayers to pick up about half the cost of the $500 million project, cleared the Senate on a 21-10 vote in mid-July, with six Democrats crossing the aisle to support the financing package. Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) helped the lead the charge for Democratic support, arguing “we are all in this together.” Taylor said the money may not be generated in lawmakers’ districts, but the revenue brought in from the Bucks does end up there and in state programs they benefit from.
At month’s end, the Assembly passed the package on a 52-34 vote. “While the taxpayers are still playing a role, they are not playing the most significant role for the state,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). Vos said the funding represented a good deal for taxpayers by keeping the NBA team, and the revenues it generates, in Wisconsin.
Walker signed the legislation in August, and he also touted the team’s financial benefits to the state’s economy. “We know, without any hype, without any economic studies, we know today we collect about six-and-a-half million dollars because the NBA plays in the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said. “That’s from income taxes collected on NBA players.”
With Kidd at the helm, the Bucks ended the 2014-2015 season with a record of 41-41 and secured a playoff berth. The Bucks are currently 12-20 on a season that’s been highlighted by a double overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on November 14th, and a December 12th win over the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Both wins came at home in the aging Bradley Center, which was built in 1988. Ground breaking and construction on the new arena are set to begin in spring of 2016, and completion is expected in 2018.