During the Milwaukee Bucks’ exhilarating run to the NBA Finals, many have reflected on how far the organization has come in the last seven years and the impact its rise has had on the city.
The Bucks were the worst team in the NBA in 2014. The league indicated a new arena was needed to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee. Team owner Herb Kohl was ready to sell. Attendance at Bucks home games was terrible, and the team was irrelevant locally. About the only thing the Bucks had going for them was an intriguing rookie named Giannis Antetokounmpo.
We all know what happened next. Kohl sold the team to a group led by New York billionaires. Then the Bucks, led by team president Peter Feigin, launched an effort to build a new arena. In 2015, a financing plan for the arena was approved by the state Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker. The project cost was $524 million, with $250 million provided by taxpayers and the rest by Kohl and the new ownership group.
Naysayers said taxpayers shouldn’t pay for any portion of the cost of a sports venue for a team owned by billionaires. In an ideal world, that’s true. But Fiserv Forum is clearly a benefit for the Bucks and the community, and without it the Bucks wouldn’t be here and Milwaukee would be stuck with an aging, often empty arena and a dead neighborhood around it.
Fiserv Forum is the centerpiece of the Bucks’ Deer District development, which is transforming downtown Milwaukee. It’s been incredible to see 20,000 people gathering in the plaza in front of the arena to watch the Bucks play on TV. The Deer District was the hottest spot in Milwaukee before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has regained that status this year. Establishments in and around the Deer District that suffered during the pandemic have gotten an incredible boost of business as crowds have returned during the playoffs with the lifting of COVID-related restrictions.
Unfortunately, Punch Bowl Social, which declared bankruptcy during the pandemic, has not reopened its Deer District location, a huge missed opportunity.
The Bucks still have a lot of work to do to complete development of the rest of the Deer District, including the vacant former Bradley Center site and Park East corridor land north of the arena. Construction of a hotel is expected to begin this year. Scenes on national TV of huge crowds in the Deer District during the playoffs should help build buzz to attract more businesses there.
Fiserv Forum and the Deer District were the result of a public-private partnership, legislation with bipartisan support and public funding shared by the state, county and city, all of which benefit from the Bucks’ presence.
It’s amazing what can be accomplished with that level of cooperation and teamwork, and it’s a pity we can’t solve other state and local problems the same way.