Monday, August 29, 2011

The Deer in Fear

It’s a bad idea. It’s fiscally irresponsible. School budgets are being cut and yet you want to build a palace for millionaires? Make ‘em pay for it themselves! It’s an empty threat – they’ll never leave! Besides, they’ve been awful for so many years anyway, so what’s the difference if they do leave?

I’m of course talking about the Milwaukee Bucks, right?

Nope. At least not entirely.

All of the arguments being bandied about regarding the Bucks might sound familiar because they were the exact same arguments the hand-wringing naysayers said about the construction of Miller Park in the mid-1990’s.

Go ahead. Read the first paragraph again. You will instantly be transported back to 1995. The fight to finally put shovel in dirt was long and protracted; ugly and intense. Even after the ballpark’s Nov. 9, 1996 groundbreaking there were still some that tried to kill the project and drive the Brewers out of town, most notably former State Sen. Joe Wineke (D-Verona). While Wineke never said that he did not care whether or not the Brewers remained in town, his posturing and stonewalling nearly prevented the passing of the bill in Oct. 1995 in the first place.

Every politician wants to make it clear to their constituents that they are fiscally responsible with the taxpayer’s money. This should be admired. However, you won’t be able to find many people opposed to Miller Park today considering the sold-out crowds and first place inhabitants the facility now hosts.

This brings me to the increasingly-fragile Milwaukee Bucks.

The same arguments we heard in the mid 1990’s about Miller Park we are now hearing for a replacement for the Bradley Center.

Hear me loudly and clearly: Without a new facility in the next 5-8 years, the Milwaukee Bucks will no longer be here.

While the arguments against construction of a new building are virtually the same, economic times are certainly different. In 1996, the dot-com boom helped swell an economy that was more favorable to investing in capital improvement projects. Since the Sept. 2008 Wall Street collapse, discretionary spending has been put on hold by most companies and families.

The other argument against construction is that most of us remember when the Bradley Center opened. It doesn’t aesthetically look all that bad, even if it compares unfavorably to it’s brethren around the NBA.

However, facts are facts. When the NBA season eventually begins, the Bradley Center will be tied with the Detroit Pistons’ Palace at Auburn Hills and the Sacramento Kings’ Power Balance Pavilion for the third-oldest facility in the league. The two buildings that are older, Oracle Arena in Oakland (1966) and Madison Square Garden (1968) have either had or are undergoing a complete refurbishing. In Sacramento, the Kings are on life support, with the looming threat of moving to Anaheim being held over the heads of their fans.

In Seattle, fans never thought that the Sonics would really move. They had just spent almost $75 million in renovations less than 15 years earlier, but Key Arena still lacked the amenities places like the newer Staples Center and Canseco Fieldhouse had. Fans were warned that if a new arena wasn’t going to be built, the franchise’s new owners would take their budding superstar, Kevin Durant, and move them to greener pastures. After 41 years and an NBA championship, the Sonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder because there was a community thirsty for the prestige of professional sports and the nearly brand-new Ford Center ready to be called home.

Currently, there are new arenas in Kansas City, Omaha, and Louisville that are more in line with today’s NBA standards than the Bradley Center. There are plans being drawn for NBA style arenas in Baltimore, Las Vegas, and Virginia Beach.

In Milwaukee, the Bradley Center isn’t thought of as being as badly off as County Stadium was. To that argument, that’s true. County Stadium was a crumbling ruin and was falling apart right before our eyes. The Bradley Center still attracts big-name concerts and still features an elegant entrance to the building. There is a sense of class the Bradley Center has that County Stadium never did. For the most part, the seats are comfortable (if a bit on cramped side). Nothing about the building screams that it is an obsolete relic.

The problem is that it is, at least as far as the economics of the NBA are concerned. Outside of the new scoreboard, very little has been spent on the building since its Oct. 1988 opening. It ranks at the very bottom of the list for producing revenue among other NBA arenas. Today’s NBA buildings have larger suites, year-round restaurants, retail facilities, and in many cases, complete entertainment districts surrounding them.

In Los Angeles, the Staples Center is the centerpiece of the LA Live district which includes the Nokia Theatre, the Grammy Museum, and dozens of retails shops, restaurants, and night clubs. In Dallas, the American Airlines Center is attached to an entertainment venue that includes the storefront news studio of the city’s ABC television affiliate. In Phoenix, the U.S. Airways Center features a Lambeau Field-like atrium that is open to the public on non-game days where you can shop or eat.

The Bradley Center is a facility that in its entirety is asleep when there isn’t a game or concert.

The time to build is now. The NBA is going through the painful process of fixing it’s financial house, and the “c-word” (contraction) is being floated out there as more than just a test balloon. This is not the time for inactivity. Construction costs rise every year, and we now know what mistakes to not repeat in the building process.

Just as public funds have built arenas and stadiums all over the country (including Miller Park and Lambeau Field); the Bucks need help from the public to help build a new facility. The concept isn’t a new one. Businesses are given numerous tax breaks and facilities to entice them to either stay or relocate. Businesses create jobs. Jobs create communities. The more jobs there are, the healthier that community is.

Just as roads, zoos, parks, and museums add value to a community, so do professional sports. Miller Park was a community investment, so would be a new arena for the Bucks. Tens of millions will enjoy going to games during the building’s lifespan, and it helps keep our community “big league.”

There is also no argument that Milwaukee’s downtown business climate needs to have the draw of NBA basketball bringing fans into the city. The Park East corridor directly north of the Bradley Center is a vast wasteland just waiting to be built upon. Just because the Bucks have been more bad than good over the last 10 years-plus is no reason to hold up doing the right thing.

Those that oppose a new arena thinking that the NHL is ready to move in the Bradley Center (a hockey building by design) are fooling themselves. The thought that any NHL team would move into a 23-year old building is as laughable as expecting Prince Fielder to fit into size 30 pants. The same constraints that are hindering the business of the NBA plague the NHL, only to a lesser degree. For now.

To those that oppose a new arena, I ask you to heed two examples. The example of Seattle and the example of the Brewers. The former yearns for a chance to have a do-over, while the latter is the best example anyone can come up with for forward-thinking leadership on a community investment that millions will enjoy for generations.

Watching charcoal smoke billow over the Miller Park parking lots it’s hard to imagine that there were actually well-meaning people that didn’t want it built. That smoke represents so many things: Friends that don’t see each other nearly enough catching up on their lives; fathers and sons bonding over a brat and a game of bags; kids connecting with their sports idols; a community coming together as one despite socioeconomic barriers.

While there wouldn’t be tailgate smoke before a Bucks games, the bonds of sports and society remains. Milwaukee needs the Bucks, even if our elected leaders are loath to admit it for fear of losing reelection. But trying times call for bold leadership. Milwaukee is major league in so many ways. To allow the Bucks to move would knock our collective status down considerably.

The time to act is now.

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