As if the ongoing efforts to build a new arena in downtown Milwaukee weren’t confusing or divisive already, another log was thrown on the fire Tuesday morning when the Menominee Indian Tribe announced that it would contribute $220 million to the project if Gov. Scott Walker were to reverse his earlier decision rejecting the Tribe’s application to build an off-reservation casino just outside of Kenosha.
As far as public funds going to an arena go, not everybody is keen to the idea pitched by Gov. Walker, who proposed the state issue up to $220 million in bonding which would be repaid by a so-called “jock tax” on the salaries of Bucks employees and players, as well as visiting players and employees.
Walker’s budget, and the jock tax provision, will be debated at length by state lawmakers, who have final say on the budget but ultimately, it’s Walker who has final say on the casino application and while he’s already made his decision — a decision which a spokesperson said Tuesday he is not going to overturn — he has until Feb. 19 to change his mind.
The Bucks, meanwhile, seem to be taking the high road.
Team president Peter Feigin took questions on the topic Tuesday at a press conference meant to introduce a new naming rights sponsor for the Bucks’ practice facility.
Feigin dismissed reports that team and Menomonee officials were involved in a conference call to discuss the proposal and said he would at least listen to what they had to say, but it seemed apparent that the Bucks were planning to stick to the existing plan.
“We stand by how excited we are about the Governor’s leadership — and building his legislation toward what he started about a week ago,” Feigin said. “We’re in the midst of working with local, municipal, county and state authorities to build a private-public partnership.
“We’re really not going off track — we’re centered on following the Governor’s lead.”
So, where does this leave the arena project? It’s hard to say for sure.
This is what we know so far: assuming the final price tag is around $500 million, as many have suggested, the Bucks are halfway to that goal.
When Sen. Herb Kohl announced he was selling the team to Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, he personally committed $100 million toward the construction of a new facility, as did the new owners, for a total of $200 million. Since then, with the addition of additional investors, the amount of private funds pledged toward the project is believed to be approximately $250 million.
That still leaves another $250 million or so to cover. Enter the state of Wisconsin and the jock tax which is no sure thing, either; plenty of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about the proposal. But let’s assume for a second that it passes, and at the full amount Walker proposed. That leaves another $30 million or so to cover before shovels hit the ground.
Where does the rest come from?
The Bucks have added a significant number of minority owners, so that group could still kick in some additional funds. And at some point, the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County will get involved. It’s just unknown when or how those two entities will participate.
As has often been the case in this process, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett been largely silent on the matter. He was obviously a little busy Tuesday, with the Common Council approving his Milwaukee Streetcar proposal. Just last week, though, the Mayor appeared on the Bill Michaels Show and said the city would “have some skin in the game” but didn’t elaborate to what extent.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has also suggested the County will be involved in the process but he, too, has declined to offer specifics. Monday, after meeting with the Bucks, Abele seemed to suggest that the new facility would be built on County-owned land in the Park East Corridor but again, it’s all just speculation.
(An interesting side note: Abele is a court side season ticket holder to Bucks games and a man of considerable wealth … perhaps he will latch on as a private contributor).
There are many, many other factors at play here — at some point, expect the Milwaukee Admirals and Marquette University to get involved in the process too — and there’s a lot of work to be done before Feigin, Edens and Lasry turn over the first ceremonial shovels of dirt.
But with more and more frequency, the conversation around the arena seems more about when and how rather than if.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a potentially misleading statement regarding the Menominee Tribe. It was my fault. – Jeremy