Build NBA Arena Next to Potawatomi Casino
City could create TIF district in valley on little-used land, state assemblyman proposes.
The 5-county sales tax created to build Miller Park for the Milwaukee Brewers continues to ache in taxpayer minds. The shadow of that political fight looms over the plans to create a new location for the Bucks to play NBA, which is frankly not America’s favorite pastime. Having said that, I applaud my friend Herb Kohl‘s desire to continue his passion and investment in the team; he is a genuine leader who has helped build Milwaukee for the better.
But, the current debate over a new arena is flawed and does not reflect what we learned from the Miller Park financing effort. Let’s start with biggest impediment to a smart discussion: insistence on a downtown location and especially near the current footprint or somehow adjacent to an expanded convention center.
There is absolutely no serious economic argument that a new Bucks area would catalyze increased economic development Downtown. There are many cities that have successfully built just outside their central business district in what would be called “underinvested areas” and it works: Chicago, Washington DC, and Portland, OR to name a few.
The Trailblazers play in a revitalization area just east of downtown across the Willamette River with easy access to Interstate 5 and Portland’s successful MAX light rail system. The Bulls play just west of Greektown with Interstate and transit access. And, in Washington DC, the Verizon Center sits in Chinatown with Metro access and easy route to I-395. All three cities have strong economies, are pedestrian and transit friendly, and their downtown commercial activity appears to be healthy even with heavy suburban options.
The idea that a new arena would boost things like housing, shopping or tourism ONLY if the facility is located Downtown does not fit reality or other cities experiences. Yet we as taxpayers and in my case as an elected official, are being asked to pull our wallets out to help pay the bills.
Raising taxes or, even worse, creation of a Super TIF would be a slap in the face to Milwaukee taxpayers, whose neighboring counties have taken votes to block raising taxes. A Super TIF is simply taking money out of the General Fund, using locally generated sales and income taxes with a district boundary, and paying for the arena instead of what they are designed for: paying for universities and technical colleges, K-12 public schools, transportation projects, health care and safety net service, public safety and prisons.
Instead, there are other options and one of them happens to be in my Legislative District, an area that is ripe for new neighbors. And the location I have in mind follows the thinking and planning I believe is necessary for a successful project regardless of where it ends up: minimal use of public dollar with no tax increase, connecting to a larger vision for Milwaukee’s Downtown, seeking out a distressed or “under-utilized” piece of land, and importantly, strong connections to the Interstate and transit system.
Using a more traditional TIF model, the new NBA arena would fit perfectly just north of the Potowatomi Casino and Hotel off 13th and Canal. Existing structures are owned by the city of Milwaukee which uses this land for DPW trucks and traffic signal stuff. The other location that would involve negotiation and/or eminent domain action, is the Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful parcel, across the Menomonee Canal.
Neither KGMB or the city are now paying taxes on those properties, making a TIF more useful and effective.
There are huge benefits to this location:
- It’s currently under-utilized and contributes little to the tax base of the city.
- Other options exist for City DPW vehicles and equipment other than the Menomonee Valley.
- Similarly, KGMB services could be connected with nearby Mill Valley or Miller Compressing.
- I-94 eastbound has an exit at the doorstep of 13th street and St. Paul.
- I-94/43 North has an exit at 10th street, seconds away from this location.
- Alternative highway access is already provided for I-94 via Canal Street at Miller Park.
- The 6th Street viaduct connecting with Canal Street, provides further auto and bus access from Downtown to the north, and to the South Side through Walker’s Point and the up and coming Fifth Ward.
- The Milwaukee Intermodal Station is blocks away and a TIF project could include financing to extend the downtown Streetcar to the new Arena and head north to Marquette University, ultimately connecting with the Convention Center, Pabst Brewery development, and Park East corridor.
- Most likely, the proposal would site the arena where KGMB is located, with some additional acquisition necessary.
- Parking structures would go where the City DPW property sits.
- Heated and properly lighted sidewalks could connect Marquette University campus via 13th street with the new arena — no small point given that Marquette’s basketball team would play at the arena including the games during NCAA playoffs.
- Skywalks could connect the Potawatomi Casino and Hotel, keeping in mind the bulk of Bucks games are during cold or inclement weather. To the extent out of towners and tourists are key markets for NBA games, having a nearby attraction like a casino and hotel is important. On the flipside, the likelihood of someone coming to a Bucks game, dropping over $100 on tickets and parking, and then saying “heck, let’s go shopping for an hour or two and spend more money” is pretty unrealistic.
- If fiscally workable, the TIF could build further public support and help the city of Milwaukee by adding non-contiguous parcels in the area for a complete commercial and residential overhaul: improved sidewalks, sewers and streets, greening and rehab of older housing stock, and workforce development assistance for under and un-employed residents. Likely areas would be just north of Marquette and west of the Freeway; as well as the South Side from S. 35th east to Walkers Point and south to Greenfield Avenue. TIF money could improve nearby local, neighborhood and downtown roads as well as improve the 16th Street Viaduct, with better valley access.
Along with creative TIF structuring, selling off the existing Bradley Center property could yield a significant contribution to construction costs. Similarly, that area of Downtown is now cleared for construction when it comes to an expanded Convention Center. Re-opening parts of 4th street, 5th street and using transit as a connector, could mean a seamless “district” which goes from Boston Store on the South and the existing Wisconsin Center footprint, all the way north to the Pabst development and Park East Corridor. This allows for hotel, commercial and retail developments, and importantly housing. Expanded downtown housing is critical to improving the utilization of land west of the river and would help bridge Wisconsin Avenue up to McKinley where the new Interstate ramps effectively serve a future marketplace at Park East. This bodes well for King Drive development over the long haul.
It makes more sense to put the new arena, which is almost totally a one-stop destination, in and out for events, in a revitalization area, and push for bigger and better in the current Wisconsin Convention Center and Bradley Center territory: more convention space, more hotel space, more street level retail, and more housing options.
And, as noted, the 13th street site, is easily accessible to Interstate traffic, local roads, existing major attractions like Potawatomi, and Marquette University. But it’s also a hop, skip and jump over to 6th street where the Convention center sits now. Grand Avenue Mall is nearby. And, with an expanded streetcar route, visitors and Milwaukee residents themselves could never once use their car to enjoy any of these locations: Downtown/central business district, Casino/Hotel, Harley Museum, Convention Center, Pabst and Park East developments, MATC campus, and other important government office locations as well as, of course, the new arena itself.
South side neighborhoods from the 5th Ward to Walkers Point, all the way west to Clarke Square and the Layton Boulevard West Neighborhood/Silver City Main street would benefit from the nearby economic development as well as any residential TIF, transit access, road improvements, etc.
Not one penny of this would come from a sales tax increase. No diversion using a Super TIF which would drain the general fund of sales and income taxes in already tight fiscal conditions. Potential financial investments could come from a seat at the table for Potawatomi, Marquette, the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and of course state dollars could be positioned for modest investments via: WisDOT, DWD, DNR, Commerce and Tourism Departments. Clearly, a financial role for the current Bradley Center and Wisconsin Center is going to be critical.
As will be the generous contributions from team owners themselves and Herb Kohl. Nothing in life is perfect and neither is this plan. But I think it’s worth discussing. With this caution, which may be echoed by many, many other elected officials: Do not expect my vote to raise taxes or harm public services in Milwaukee via a Super TIF.
Josh Zepnick represents the Ninth Assembly District which includes the majority of the Menomonee Valley. He currently sits on the Legislative Council study committee reviewing the use of TIF plans in Wisconsin.