Arena supporters say huge opportunity must be seized

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The plans for a new $500 million arena in downtown Milwaukee and another $500 million in ancillary development is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the community that leaders must find a way to deliver, a panel of civic and business leaders said Tuesday at a Fuel Milwaukee event.

“We have so few opportunities, as a city of our size, to do projects of a significant scale,” said Cory Nettles, founder and managing director of Milwaukee-based Generation Growth Capital Inc. and minority owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, which the arena would be primarily built for. “I can’t think of another time in my lifetime of somebody talking about doing a $1 billion investment in our city.”

Nettles joined Gary Grunau, owner of Grucon Group; Robin Reese, a real estate development professional with Vangard Group LLC; Beth Weirick, CEO of the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District; and Greg Uhen, CEO and managing director of Eppstein Uhen Architects; on the panel for the event, Developing Milwaukee: How A Sports & Entertainment District Could Transform Our City’s Downtown, held at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

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The owners of the Milwaukee Bucks and former owner Herb Kohl have pledged $250 million towards the arena project and are seeking public financing for the other half. State, city and county officials are negotiating a deal for the public portion of the project. The Bucks owners also say they are planning an additional $500 million in ancillary development around the arena.

The project is huge opportunity to boost Milwaukee’s economy, to fill the long-vacant Park East corridor and to improve the economic connection between downtown and nearby neighborhoods, the panelists said. They expressed an eagerness to city public officials finalize a financing deal so construction can begin.

“I hope this project will cause the mayor, the governor, the county executive and state Legislature to put aside their political differences,” Grunau said. “(I hope) they think about the future of this community, the impact this could have and if everybody gives a little bit (in the negotiations, a deal could get done). It just has to be done.”

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The private sector commitment for half of the cost of the new arena is larger than most arena and stadium projects in the U.S., Nettles said. The opportunity to leverage a $250 million public investment for a total development investment of $1 billion is a tremendous opportunity, he said.

“This is a generational, transformative opportunity,” Nettles said.

The arena and ancillary development will help create jobs and economic activity, but it will also help make Milwaukee a more attractive place to live, work and play, Weirick said.

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“It’s going to make Milwaukee a ‘gotta get to’ city,” she said.

The panelists said that the Bucks and community leaders need to make sure the project is done right in order to maximize its impact.

The arena and ancillary development would cover a 25-acre area. Eppstein Uhen is part of the design team for the arena project. Uhen compared the arena and ancillary development to the Power & Light District in Kansas City. However, he said that district, which includes an arena, is heavily entertainment oriented and at times is lifeless. He said the downtown Milwaukee arena district should include residential development to make sure it is an active 24-7 neighborhood.

“This can not be just a sports and entertainment district,” he said. “This has to be an urban neighborhood with sports, entertainment and other things. People have to want to be here, to live here, to work here.”

The arena district could finally bring life to the Park East corridor.

“Today you can walk from (the former Pabst) Brewery to Mader’s (restaurant) and you don’t see a person,” Uhen said. “You don’t see any activated storefronts. You don’t see a thing. We have an opportunity to change Milwaukee and to connect it to our great city. We can’t screw this up. We have to do this right.”

The Bucks recently unveiled renderings of the exterior of the arena and the ancillary development. Uhen said the design of the interior of the arena will be even more exciting.

“We can’t wait to show the design inside the arena,” he said. The arena’s interior design will provide different ways for fans to experience events at the arena than they can today at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Uhen said. He declined to provide further details.

If the arena is not built and the NBA forces the Bucks to leave Milwaukee, the missed opportunity will be a devastating blow to Milwaukee, the panelists said.

“Whenever a community misses out on a generational opportunity, the signal it sends to the rest of the world is not a good one,” Weirick said.

Andrew Weiland is managing editor at BizTimes Milwaukee.

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