A Tale of Two Buildings
An arena and park pavilion are each called “public-private projects.” But they offer quite different conceptions of the public interest.
Plans for two very different Milwaukee buildings were recently unveiled. A proposed sports arena will primarily cater to upscale patrons and will further enrich the Milwaukee Bucks’ mega-wealthy owners. Getting far less discussion is a cutting-edge visitor and education center in Lakeshore State Park that will offer free access to all. It will grace a peninsula tucked between Lake Michigan and Summerfest’s shores.
One will cost $500 million or more, and taxpayers are being pressured to contribute at least $250 million. The arena is being demanded by a single private business—an NBA team estimated by Forbes to be worth $600 million.
The other will cost $5 million. The nonprofit Friends of Lakeshore State Park says it will ask only private donors to pick up the tab, even though the pavilion will be a completely public space in a Wisconsin state park.
A “public authority” will manage and maintain the publicly-subsidized sports and entertainment district created for the arena. The arena’s lifespan likely will be no more than 30 years, as is now customary for NBA venues. As the building’s “owner,” the public may be expected to fund costly repairs and upgrades for the rapidly depreciating asset, as it has for Miller Park. (That part of the plan has yet to be discussed.) Sadly, that will repeat the history of public subsidies that shore up the BMO Harris Bradley Center ($10 million in state funds since 2009, plus $20 million in outstanding debt).
Tickets to Bucks games will be beyond the budget of most area residents. However, Bucks’ architects are calling a courtyard within the commercial entertainment complex a “public plaza.” Preliminary drawings make the space seem as “public” as any plein-air bar or restaurant.
The state-park oasis will be open year-round, welcoming strollers, joggers, cyclists, and anglers. Transient boaters who dock in the park’s slips will enjoy accommodations needed by campers. Educational programs will be conducted indoors and on a sheltered plaza that will seat up to 300. The building will also house an office for the park ranger and storage for maintenance.
Seeing basketball games and concerts in an arena offers high-energy entertainment — for those who can afford it. Others in southeastern Wisconsin who never get to attend a Bucks game may take pride in having an NBA team in the region, and perhaps get a thrill watching games on TV.
Milwaukee’s lakefront, including this 22-acre preserve, draws residents and tourists from far and wide. Many are proud that Wisconsin’s only urban state park is here. They relish its attributes, including a sweeping prairie, fishing areas and a watercraft-accessible beach. They like how it scenically links the Hank Aaron and Oak Leaf state trails.
There’s little that connects these two buildings except that each, in its own way, could enhance Milwaukee’s quality of life and the experience of visitors. Perhaps the starkest difference lies in their respective relationships to the public and private sectors.
The arena will mostly reward Bucks owners and players, while drawing heavily on public dollars for construction and upkeep. If it works as the Bradley Center does, other teams, as well as concert promoters, will lease the venue for their events. Meanwhile, the Bucks will pay no rent and gain a large portion of net revenue from luxury suites and concession, catering and merchandise sales. Apparently, that’s just how major-league deals are structured in our topsy-turvy world.
Current policy and budgeting means state funding for new park facilities is out of the question. Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget has even eliminated all funds for state parks (which calls into question their “public” appellation). In response to these penurious measures, public-spirited individuals and businesses have stepped up to raise funds for this ground-breaking center. The public park’s ultra-green building will be enjoyed as a destination or a random discovery.
Public funding for a new arena faces widespread opposition, according to a recent Marquette poll. In an era of decimated state and local budgets, subsidizing a pricey sports palace will be a heavy lift. But, somehow, taxpayers may end up carrying that burden.
By contrast, a private campaign to build a “light-on-the-land” park facility will produce a shared legacy, enjoyed for generations.
A new venue to produce revenue for the Bucks will cost taxpayers a pretty penny. An energy-generating visitor center won’t cost taxpayers a dime.
An arena will provide good times for relatively few. A park pavilion will foster the greater good for all.