Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Bitter Feud Between the Bradley Center and Wisconsin Center

By - Dec 14th, 2001 08:45 pm
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The “negotiations” by the Bradley Center and the Wisconsin Center District have begun to resemble the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. One Bradley board member told me Wisconsin Center chairman Frank Gimbel “is a liar.”

“When Gimbel said he felt betrayed by the information we released, I was surprised,” says Bradley board member Ulice Payne referring to Gimbel’s response to the release of the Bradley Center’s renovation plan. “In fact, we had met a month before and he had seen the plan.”

But Wisconsin Center President Dick Geyer takes issue with this. “They are releasing things before we have a chance to see them,” he says. “Frank is just saying we need a chance to talk.”

But Payne suggested Gimbel was simply posturing for the press. “We don’t negotiate in the newspaper. That’s not what we do.”

Geyer suggests there’s nothing to negotiate about. “They want the [Wisconsin Center] taxes and they don’t want to answer to anybody. That’s not the way it’s going to work. That [Bradley] board should be dissolved. We will take some of those members and put them on our board.”

But Payne says Gimbel and Geyer have an ulterior motive for this. “Frank wants us to do some of his work, to reduce the size of his board. He wants to have less public officials on his board.”

Payne also says Gimbel needs the Bradley Center because “he knows he can’t go to Madison and raise taxes without the support of the Bradley Center.”

Geyer, meanwhile, says the Bradley Center is stonewalling their requests for more financial information. “We asked for reports on their financials weeks ago. I don’t want to see the numbers they give the state. I want to see the real numbers, the back of the house and everything.”

But Payne has scoffed at that request, noting, “We don’t have their financials either.”

Citing what he calls the “bad blood” between the two entities, Mayor John Norquist has joined County Executive F. Thomas Ament in calling for a public summit to discuss downtown development plans. But Geyer flatly rejects the need for this: “We don’t need to have the summit and sit there and have a bunch of people tell us how to run our business.”

As for Norquist’s idea of having the Rave, the Riverside and other entertainment businesses involved in the talks, Geyer says, “I don’t need the Rave and the Eagles Club and those kind of people at it. This has nothing to do with with them. This has to do with the Bradley Center.”

But Norquist seems adamant about forcing the issue out in the open. The mayor says he doesn’t want a repetition of the way the Brewers negotiated for Miller Park. “That left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”

Norquist has made it clear he believes the Bradley Center cannot gain tax money from the Wisconsin Center without ceding control to it. But he also seems concerned about the Wisconsin Center’s plan to renovate the auditorium, suggesting they “slow it down a little bit.”

Gimbel rejected this request, but one official close to Norquist said the city must issue permits for the Auditorium renovation. “That could take a long time to get,” the official suggested.

Where does this leave the issue? The Wisconsin Center won’t get legislative approval for a tax increase to expand the convention center if it faces the opposition of business leaders who support the Bradley Center, much less if they are joined by Norquist and Ament. In short, Gimbel appears to be in the same kind of limbo as the Bradley Center, which seems unable to move without some tax support.

One Bradley Center board member suggested to me that the board might come up with private money to make up the difference, but if they have access to such funding, why have they spent the last two years courting Gimbel? The best guess is that the Hatfields and McCoys must ultimately figure out some way to join their families.

“Gimbel is a trial lawyer. He makes deals,” says one business leader. In short, Gimbel is still negotiating, in and out of the newspapers, for the best deal. As Geyer puts it, “Franklyn is not the type of person who’s going to walk away from negotiations.”

Wisconsin’s Economy Heads South

A recent task force report by the Greater Milwaukee Committee offered sobering news about Milwaukee and Wisconsin that barely got mentioned in the press. Perhaps most interesting, the corporate executives on the task force, which was headed up by Johnson Controls chairman James Keyes, devote most of their analysis lamenting the decline in average wages in Wisconsin.

In the last decade, the report concluded, “it is clear that Wisconsin lost ground to other key competitive states.” This slide was particularly severe in the best years for the U.S. economy, from 1997 to 2000. During that period, average earnings for Wisconsin workers did rise, by 12%, but at a rate slower than the entire American economy, which saw workers’ earnings rise by 16 percent.

This meant Wisconsin fell even further behind the rest of the country. In 1997, the average Wisconsin worker earned $27,337, compared to $30,353 nationally. By 2000, the average Wisconsin worker earned $30,697, compared to $35,296 nationally.

Looking at long-term hourly pay, the report suggested, the trend looks even worse. The report used real dollars computed in 1999 values, and found that the median Wisconsin worker earned $13.87 an hour in 1979, well above the national average of $13.12. By 1999, the median Wisconsin wage was $12.56 an hour, compared to $12.68 nationally. “This has led to a 19% increase in the share of Wisconsin workers earning poverty wages between 1979 and 1999,” the report noted.

But it gets worse. Based on the state Department of Revenue’s economic forecast, the report predicts Wisconsin’s per capita income growth could drop to the level of Alabama and Mississippi by the year 2024. The report notes that Wisconsin’s historically strong insurance industry has been decimated, as it has lost several corporate headquarters, including Northwester National, Tower Life and Wisconsin National.

“Both Milwaukee and Wisconsin have a troubled economic future unless some of the fundamentals of the economy are changed,” the report concludes.

The report makes a number of recommendations for change. Perhaps the most interesting is the suggestion that Milwaukee maximize its connection with the Chicago economy, which has been far more successful in the last decade. The report favors high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Chicago and proposes we pursue a Chicago/Milwaukee/Madison triangle, modeled on the Research Triangle of North Carolina. Another recommendation is that the city maximize its strengths in the medical instruments industry by creating a high tech research park with GE Medical Systems as its center.

Finally, the report laments Wisconsin’s abysmal record in getting federal funding. The state ranks 49th in total federal funding per capita, which explains why only 10.5 percent of Milwaukee workers are employed by government, compared to the national average of 15.7 percent. “If we achieved the national average, Milwaukee’s employment would grow by 45,000 workers,” the report notes.

Those are dramatic statistics, but the state’s congressional delegation has never been particularly worried about this, since voters in Wisconsin are apparently too big-minded to punish representatives who don’t bring home the bacon. Perhaps business leaders need to exert serious pressure on Wisconsin’s national politicians to start worrying more about getting our fair share of federal spending.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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