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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

It's about time: fresh debate about the need for a new Milwaukee arena

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So, why do so many cities have publicly supported sports arenas if they don't provide a positive economic impact?

It's a question that bears asking--and answering--in light of Friday's release of a study by the city of Milwaukee's Legislative Reference Bureau.

The report cites recent studies showing publicly financed sports venues haven't paid off for the municipalities that built them.   One of them, Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, is quoted in the Journal/Sentinel as saying, "One should not anticipate that a team or a facility by itself will either increase employment or raise per capita income in a metropolitan area."  Rather than generate new spending via what's called a "multiplier effect", the experts in the report say what occurs instead is a "substitution effect" in which locals who would've spent entertainment dollars elsewhere do it instead at the new arena. 

Ask downtown bars and restaurants about the validity of that, especially those that sit closest to the BMO Harris Bradley Center.  See how tough it is to get a seat at the bar at Turner Hall when the Bucks aren't playing, versus a night when they are, or when there's a big concert or some other major sports/entertainment act happening. 

Alderman Michael Murphy asked for the study as the city debates the future of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, and the findings are sure to bolster those who say the current 25 year old venue is just fine, thank you, and that Milwaukee has more pressing needs to spend it's cash on.  Sadly, any major metropolitan area will ALWAYS have more pressing needs than the 'quality of life" enhancement a fancy venue brings, but such facilities are what separate the Wichita's from the Milwaukee's.

Without an arena--the BMO Harris Bradley Center or a sexy new replacement--how many folks would head downtown on their own, a downtown that recently was hailed by Forbes magazine as one of the 15 up-and-comers in the country?    A night at a game/concert might prove to a downtown skeptic that, hey, this is something I might want to do again, even if there isn't a game or a concert to dip into.

The new-arena argument isn't about generating new jobs and revenue.   It's about holding serve.  The bottom line: no new sports venue means the Bucks are gone--they're the ones who need it most because the BMO Harris Bradley Center was built at a time when NBA teams were happy with luxury box cash.  Now, they need more: premium courtside seats, stores, restaurants and other year-round attractions.   But the BMO Harris Bradley Center is more than the home of the Bucks.

We get the NCAA Tournament next year--that's two days worth of visitors who'd otherwise NEVER come to Milwaukee, by the way--but what are the chances of it returning in future years if expensive improvements aren't made?  25 years is an eternity, and what was state-of-the-art in 1988 is today's dusty, out-of-date technology when it comes to hosting such a massive, complicated, technologically-involved event.   And then there's Marquette--arenas are recruiting tools.    What about major performers--does the facility meet current concert needs, or does Milwaukee become even easier for big acts like The Rolling Stones to pass us by in favor of Chicago?  

Answers aren't easy.  It's hard to make a case for replacing a 25 year old arena, especially one that was a gift from the area's two most generous and beloved benefactors.   To replace it so soon seems almost ungrateful to some, but the fact that we had to slap a sponsor's name upon it shows just how financially tenuous the building's financial situation is.   Honest debate about the pluses and minuses of a new structure need airing out.   This can't be a referendum merely on the Bucks and pro basketball--if it is, the new arena doesn't happen and the NBA leaves.  And, it can't be about multiplier and substitution effects.   It should be about quality of life, and whether or not the city is a better place with a state-of-the-art arena that makes Milwaukee big-league, or if we want to stick with what we've got, with predictable results.

The Marquette Law School hosts a conference about this issue Monday, one that's co-sponsored by the Journal/Sentinel.    Can't wait to hear what's said.  

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