County solution is only path forward

Milwaukee County is standing at an historical crossroads that will determine its future as a vibrant major metropolitan area or a declining region void of culture and unable to attract and employ the best young talent.

So, let’s not sugarcoat this…If we choose vibrancy, we are going to have to pay for it.

At first glance, the membership of the Cultural and Entertainment Capital Needs Task Force implies the presence of a diverse regional coalition. But make no mistake, the notion of the suburban counties agreeing to spend one cent in new taxes to support entertainment venues in Milwaukee County will not fly.

Already, the county boards in Racine and Ozaukee counties have gone on record with preemptive opposition to a regional tax, even though such a tax hasn’t even been proposed yet.

So, forget that. Suburbanites in Racine, Kenosha, Waukesha, Walworth, Ozaukee and Washington counties are not going to agree to pay any new taxes, even if they benefit from destinations such as the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Some more frank talk: The City of Milwaukee, home to some of the most impoverished people in the region, cannot afford to foot the bill alone for the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be needed to upgrade the entertainment venues.

To get it done, the suburban communities within Milwaukee County will have to be part of the solution. Those cities include Bayside, Brown Deer, Cudahy, Fox Point, Franklin, Glendale, Greendale, Greenfield, Hales Corners, Oak Creek, River Hills, Shorewood, South Milwaukee, St. Francis, Wauwatosa, West Allis, West Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay.

It remains to be seen whether that solution involves some combination of ticket taxes, hotel taxes, wheel taxes or sales taxes. But make no mistake, it will take taxes to make it happen.

Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl recently announced he will try to attract some new investors to infuse some cash on hand for the troubled franchise. That’s smart. But it won’t save the day.

If the Bucks are to stay, it will take new taxes of some form. Creating a new taxing authority would require action by the State Legislature and the approval of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has said that the only way he would consider a new tax would be if the people who are to be taxed first approved of the tax in a referendum.

Since the city can’t do it alone, and the collar counties won’t do it, the only solution going forward is for Milwaukee County residents agreeing to do it.

Some residents have the mistaken impression that this whole kerfuffle is all about the Bucks. As BizTimes explained in a recent cover story, that is far from the case. The Bradley Center itself, which faces hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance fees in future years, is not financially sustainable without the Bucks. If the Bucks leave town, the Bradley Center dies.

And if the Bradley Center dies, that means no major indoor concerts, and the Milwaukee Admirals and Marquette University’s men’s basketball team also would lose their homes. The loss of the Bradley Center also would result in dozens of smaller restaurants and bars closing in downtown Milwaukee, not to mention the adverse impact that would have on downtown hotels.

If no county solution – including new taxation – is found, we must understand and be prepared to live with the consequences.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.

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