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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

Doomed from the start: there's no future in the Bradley Center

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The roof leaks.  The doors are rusting.  The furniture?  Some of it is shot and needs constant replacing.

We're not talking about someone's house here.  It's all about the home of the Bucks (and Marquette and the Admirals, too).

The Journal/Sentinel this week put into words and pictures some of what's wrong with Milwaukee's 25 year old sports and entertainment edifice.  Numbers, too: 40 million dollars in needed repairs over the next decade, just to keep the status quo.  That, plus another million dollars a year to do the annual touch-ups and tweaks.

The timing of the photo essay and accompanying story is interesting, coming just before the 48 member Cultural and Entertainment Capitol Needs Task Force was about to hold its first meeting, having been tasked by the Greater Milwaukee Committee to figure out how to keep/maintain/build upon the assets we already have and perhaps replace one (The BMO Harris Bradley Center) that we keep hearing is on its last legs.

Here's the inconvenient truth: if the Bradley Center were in pristine shape complete with the new arena smell that wafted through it the night it opened in 1988, IT STILL WOULDN'T FIT TODAY'S SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT BILL.

Lloyd and Jane Pettit's 90 million dollar gift was built with fatal flaws that doom its continued 21st century use.  It is first and foremost a hockey building, configured for an NHL franchise the couple wanted but decided not to pull the trigger on.  That was another gift of theirs to the city: they knew Milwaukee couldn't support both pro hockey and pro hoop, deciding to give the Bucks squatters rights instead of starting an athletic civil war. 

As was the case with the new Comiskey Park in Chicago, the Bradley Center is architecturally dated.  Both buildings came along at precisely the wrong time, built to the needs/desires of the past as a new realities were about to set in.  Comiskey was contemporary, built as baseball was shifting to the retro: stadiums that looked old, but that boasted all sorts of modern amenities.  Think Camden Yards and any stadium built since.   Chicago has had to pour tens of millions into making it's new ballpark look old but still feel comfortable.

The Bradley Center went up when suites were all the rage in sports.  Suite revenue was enough to pad the bottom line--court side seating was always desirable, but now it's crucial.  Club seats with waitress service and other privileges are a must, a new way to wring out more cash from patrons seeking the special and unique without having to buy an entire suite. The bad hockey sight-lines and lack of enhanced, close-to-the-action seating leave the Bradley Center fiscally dated, certainly when it comes to pro hoop.

Arenas back then didn't have to be year-round destinations, complete with restaurants, stores, pro shops, halls of fame, banquet rooms and other on-site draws that kept the cash flowing in.  Sports got more expensive, and revenue streams had to become rivers.  Buildings couldn't sit dark any more, and their footprints had to grow to feed the insatiable salary beast.  Lambeau Field used to host seven Packers games and a few high school tilts a year.  That was it.  That was also 1969.  Look at what it's become, not out of desire but out of NFL fiscal reality: atriums, restaurants, pubs, shops, meeting rooms, etc. A drive to Lambeau no longer has to include a football game upon arrival.

All those new demands, all those changes, all those fresh revenue-generating concepts came along after 1988.  The B-C was doomed as the first patron clicked through the opening night turnstile to see the Blackhawks and Oilers that autumn night 25 years ago.

Is another commission going to come up with the answers? Can it find a way to build a new arena and maintain our other community assets without having to ask reluctant taxpayers to spend more?  Can they make a case for lavishing cash on such things when basics like education and infrastructure need tending to?

Schools will always need more money.  Roads will always need fixing.  Sewer pipes break.  All cities face these issues.  No city does without arts, parks, civic attractions, or college/pro sports.  Those who do are found in the hinterlands, where the city limits signs are almost back to back, separated by a few bars and a feed mill.

We should be able to do it all--that's what vibrant regions do.  That's right, regions.  Some surrounding counties that rely on Milwaukee for  culture, diversions and employment are quick to say they want nothing to do with supporting a new arena via a tax.  That's self-serving, short-sighted and, to put it bluntly, cowardly: yes, taxes are unpopular, but like pot-holed streets and busted pipes a part of life.  As Milwaukee goes, so runs the regional engine.  Try landing that Waukesha businessman's flight home from New York at Crites Field.  Southeast Wisconsin grew because of Milwaukee and what it provides, and its quality-of-life attractions don't lose their allure at 124th Street, or at either County Line Road.

Indianapolis did bold things to turn itself from "Nap Town" two decades ago into a thriving destination.  St. Louis and the Twin Cities, towns we see as athletically-competitive inferiors, come up with ways to build and thrive.  Oklahoma City is the model many locals point to as our debate rages on, as commissions form and blue ribbon panels convene.  Is that the course to follow?  Let the conversation be enjoined, and quickly, because the clock is running.

Milwaukee had the vision and enthusiasm to do great things--a War Memorial, museums, libraries, the old Milwaukee Arena and a new stadium before it even had a major league team.   That era's thinking got the jobs done, and the schools stayed open, the streets remained paved, the pipes fixed.  New thinking, fresh ideas never go out of style, even though 25 year old buildings sometimes do.

The Bradley Center debate is about more than the Bucks, the commission that met for the first time this week is about more than a new home for a staggering, last place NBA club.  It's about keeping what we have--all of it--and building on it.  The commission that started its work this week deserves the courtesy of at least being heard before select parts of the region go fiscally fetal and stick their collective heads in the sand.

We're out of Lloyds and Janes. No deep pocketed benefactor is riding in on a white horse to save our arena bacon--plus, the issue goes beyond a new building.  A change-resistant community needs to step up and adopt new ways to preserve the old, foster the new.

Or is this commission, like the Bradley Center, also doomed from the start? 


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