Last updated on February 5th, 2020 at 11:39 am
When the Milwaukee Bucks won Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on May 15, thousands gathered in downtown Milwaukee to celebrate.
Those who tuned in to TNT’s live coverage witnessed a scene in Milwaukee that just a year earlier would have been unrecognizable here.
From an aerial view, crowds completely covered the brightly illuminated plaza outside Fiserv Forum, introducing basketball fans across the country to the Deer District and the city’s new arena.
“This is incredible,” TNT commentator Charles Barkley said as cheering fans, dressed in No. 34 jerseys and Bucks gear, swarmed the set of the network’s post-game show. Shaquille O’Neal likened it to being on stage at a rap concert.
For local sports fans, that level of national exposure — and the possibility of a Bucks’ championship appearance — long seemed like something only other cities enjoyed. After all, the Bucks went almost two decades without making the conference finals or even winning a playoff series.
Despite eventually losing to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks, led by NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Fiserv Forum brought new life to downtown Milwaukee during the $524 million arena’s first year.
The Bucks’ playoff run was the pinnacle for the hugely successful first year of Fiserv Forum. A total of 1.5 million people have come through the arena’s doors since it opened in August 2018. It ranked among the top 25 North American venues in concert ticket sales, according to Pollstar. Marquette University’s men’s basketball team saw a 26% year-over-year increase in average game attendance, the second-highest increase among the NCAA’s Division 1 schools.
Fiserv Forum’s first year also brought the completion of the adjacent public plaza and Entertainment Block – the complementary development outside the arena that includes Milwaukee-based Good City Brewing, Denver-based Punch Bowl Social, Milwaukee-based Drink Wisconsinbly and two Bucks-operated concepts, The MECCA Sports Bar and Grill and the Beer Garden.
The new arena was also crucial in helping Milwaukee land the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Expected to be the largest event in the city’s history, the DNC could prove to be more important for Milwaukee’s future than all of the other accomplishments of Fiserv Forum’s first year combined.
Whether Milwaukee can capitalize on the success of the arena’s first year and the DNC opportunity will depend on area businesses adapting to a changing environment, the Bucks continuing to deliver event programming at a high rate, and the team’s ability to develop the still vacant land surrounding the arena.
No dark days
Since it opened, Fiserv Forum has held more than 110 non-Bucks or Marquette events, including more than 50 corporate events it hosted throughout its first fiscal year, which ran from August 2018 to June 2019.
The arena hosted 34 concerts in its first year, most of which were sellouts, said Raj Saha, general manager of Fiserv Forum. By comparison, the Bradley Center hosted 21 concerts during fiscal 2008, its busiest for concerts.
While year one of Fiserv Forum brought some of the music industry’s most notable names to Milwauke, including John Mayer, Justin Timberlake, P!nk, Cher, Metallica, Ariana Grande and the arena’s grand opening act The Killers, the lineup also represented a range of genres from Latin American to hip-hop, said Saha.
Colombian reggaeton star J. Balvin performed in October as the first major Latin American artist to play in Milwaukee in years, and Regional Mexican band Banda MS de Sergio Lizárraga, better known as Banda MS, will take the stage in November. Rapper Travis Scott performed in February and hip-hop superstar Chance the Rapper is booked for late October.
“It’s not just about booking the concerts, it’s making sure the concerts are well attended so the artist, the manager and the agents are always thinking of Milwaukee,” Saha said. “The greatest thing of all is how well the market has responded in Milwaukee and in the radius around Milwaukee to sell out all these shows.”
The ability to attract more entertainment to Milwaukee is good for the local industry, said Matt Beringer, chief operating officer of the Pabst Theater Group.
“It continues the positive trend of artists, agents and managers viewing Milwaukee as an increasingly viable option for entertainment normally reserved for larger markets,” he said.
Beyond concerts, the entertainment lineup for the first year of Fiserv Forum included UFC Fight Night, comedian Jim Gaffigan, Cirque du Soleil, ventriloquist and comedian Jeff Dunham and Professional Bull Riders.
Those major events, along with Bucks and Marquette games, draw the largest crowds, but Saha said the overall goal for the arena is “no dark days.”
“While a lot of people see Bucks games, Marquette games, concerts and UFC fights, what they don’t see is the building’s calendar may have a three- or four-day gap between events, but we’re still hosting something inside the building,” he said, referring to private and corporate gatherings that can be held in any of the 10 event spaces throughout the arena.
That philosophy extends beyond the confines of the facility.
Fiserv Forum’s outdoor public plaza hosted its own major events this summer, including Bloody Mary Fest, Lobster Fest, Chords & Curds Festival and the Morning Glory Art Fair. The popular Christkindlmarket will return this winter for a second year and plans are in the works to expand its footprint, Saha said.
There are also weekly programs at the plaza such as early morning high-intensity group workouts, yoga classes, live music, movie showings and organized activities for kids.
The Deer District, the name for the Bucks’ development district around Fiserv Forum, has also become a centralized hub for a variety of international and local sports events beyond Bucks games. The Deer District includes Fiserv Forum, the plaza, the Entertainment Block, land the Bucks control in the Park East corridor and the former Bradley Center site.
Fans packed the Beer Garden in the Entertainment Block after the Bucks’ home opener last fall to cheer on the Brewers during the National League Championship Series. More recently, about 2,000 people gathered to watch the Women’s FIFA World Cup final, Saha said.
“We want to be the entertainment capital of the state,” he said.
An influx of people in the Deer District over the past year has boosted business for not only the Bucks and Entertainment Block tenants, but also for other areas of downtown, including North Old World Third Street and North Water Street, which themselves are also some of the city’s most popular nightlife strips.
For bar owners Michael Vitucci and Nathan Harris, capitalizing on all the recent growth in the area means evolving with the neighborhood.
The business partners in July announced plans to rebrand Ugly’s, which faces Old World Third but shares its northern exterior wall with the Bucks’ Beer Garden. Vitucci also owns Belmont Tavern, Murphy’s, Caffrey’s, and Izzy Hops Swig & Nosh, all located throughout downtown Milwaukee. Harris is the founder of Ease Inc., a Milwaukee-based software startup.
The Ugly’s building, a three-story, 9,000-square-foot space, will reopen early this month as two new bar-restaurant concepts: Uncle Buck’s, a swanky Northwoods-themed tavern on the main floor, and Red Star, an upper-level lounge, dance club and rooftop patio offering views of the adjacent Beer Garden and its 30-foot screen below.
“Times are changing and millennials are looking for a better experience and I think Ugly’s stayed stagnant—it was ready for a complete overhaul,” Vitucci said.
He said the concept’s lower price points and local pride will set it apart from existing bars along the Entertainment Block.
Other nearby businesses previously benefitted from basketball games and concerts at the Bradley Center, but some say Fiserv Forum has made a bigger impact.
Iconic German restaurant Mader’s saw 20% more foot traffic on Fiserv Forum concert nights compared to those previously held at the Bradley Center, said general manager Dan Hazard.
He said business has been on a positive trajectory since the new arena opened and is planning the restaurant’s first major renovation in 30 years early next year. The last project coincided with the opening of the Bradley Center in 1988.
“(Fiserv Forum) has been helpful to us,” he said. “One advantage we have is a large parking lot. If you come and dine here before an event, you can leave your car. Rather than spending the money on parking, they can spend it on some drinks and food.”
Nathan Showers, owner of Rogues Gallery on East Juneau Avenue and recently opened Elwood’s Liquor & Tap at the former Rosie’s on Water Street, said the number of customers coming through the door at Rogues during the Bucks’ season was “exponentially bigger” this year than in years past, especially during the playoffs.
Even when playoff games fell on weeknights, the bar brought in weekend-sized crowds, Showers said, which created staffing challenges.
“On a Wednesday night, we only have two bartenders working normally and we needed four or five for a Bucks game,” he said.
Showers attributed the boost to Rogues’ closer proximity to Fiserv Forum than to the Bradley Center, as well as the Bucks’ recent success.
But the team’s performance, or even a new arena, will not make or break business for longtime Water and Old World Third establishments, Showers said. After all, they survived the years when the Bucks were in the doldrums.
“I think the businesses that need the Bucks to do well more than we do are the ones in their district,” he said. “Those are the ones that I think will really live and die off of the Bucks games, the concerts. All the bars in the area win if there is a Bucks game. But we’ve all been here before the Bucks were good and are doing just fine, so this is just an added bonus for us.”
Good City Brewing opened in late January as the first of four tenants along the Entertainment Block, which spans Vel R. Phillips Avenue between West Highland and Juneau avenues. Chief executive officer and co-founder Dan Katt said he has seen a general resurgence of traffic coming into the downtown area since Fiserv Forum and the Deer District opened, and has even noticed it at Good City’s East Side location.
“There’s a source of gravity that the arena brought in, which was really different from the Bradley Center,” Katt said.
Good City saw its greatest surge of foot traffic during the playoffs. The space remained full throughout the duration of the games, compared to the regular season, when customers would clear out at tip-off and head into the arena.
Katt said Good City has especially benefited from the wide range of events held at Fiserv Forum, and is working out the logistics of accommodating the different groups of people those events bring in. Some people may come for the craft beer, while others are interested in only ordering food.
On days when there are not events, the 11,000-square-foot production facility and taproom attracts tourists who are staying at one of the new nearby hotels and local business professionals during the lunch hour, Katt said. Weeknights are quiet.
“It’s still a developing neighborhood,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of apartments in the immediate vicinity other than The Moderne. There are still vacant lots and those eventually will be filled, but probably not for a few years.”
Those vacant lots are an important element of the Deer District footprint, which Joe Solmonese, chief executive officer of the 2020 DNC Committee, recently described as “tailor-made for a presidential convention of this caliber.”
During the convention, the space will likely function as giant parking lots that will store the hundreds of buses transporting delegates to and from hotels each day, said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Parking is often a challenge for conventions held in downtown areas, so the open space and its proximity to Fiserv Forum was attractive to event organizers.
In addition, millions of dollars will be invested in the arena’s infrastructure during the months leading up to the convention, Barrett said.
Final plans could include reconfiguring portions of the interior to build out the stage and maximize seating capacity. That work is set to begin late this year, Solmonese said.
“We’re going to work hand-in-hand (with the DNC),” said Saha. “It’s not as simple as us handing over the keys and saying ‘See you in two months.’”
Although additional new development in the Deer District will not break ground until after the DNC, which takes place from July 13-16, 2020, Katt is anxious for that work to begin.
“Just getting things started will be a big help to us because we’d have probably a couple hundred construction workers down here every day that need to eat and need a beer after work,” he said.
Building a future
With Fiserv Forum and the Entertainment Block complete, it appears the Bucks are on their way to fulfilling their grander vision for the Deer District, and Milwaukee’s business community is already benefitting. However, it may be a long road until that vision fully comes to life.
The Bucks are working to secure developers and tenants for four main sites: a 2.4-acre plot on the northwest quadrant of Juneau and Vel R. Phillips avenues; a 1.88-acre plot on the northeast quadrant of that same intersection; and a 2.89-acre and 2.68 acre-plot at the former Bradley Center site just to the south of Fiserv Forum. The sites at Juneau and Vel R. Phillips avenues are in the Park East corridor.
Redevelopment of the former Bradley Center site will be a major turning point for businesses in and around the Deer District, said Mike Eitel, owner of Nomad World Pub and Caravan Hospitality Group. The company took over the main level bar-restaurant and event space at Turner Hall last summer and reopened it in time for the Bucks’ first preseason home game in October.
During its first 10 months, Tavern at Turner based its hours of operation largely on the Fiserv Forum and Turner Hall event schedules. The business is now focusing efforts on filling non-event days with private parties and special events, but Eitel said there is not enough consistent demand to open with normal hours to the public.
“We’re still a couple years away from real, actual density down here … We don’t want to wait four years for the neighborhood to be built up around us — we don’t have that luxury,” he said. “And we don’t want to only be open during events.”
Eitel is hopeful about what is in the works for the former Bradley Center site, saying it will help transform the Deer District into a “24-hour neighborhood.” He also said the proposed extension of Milwaukee’s downtown streetcar on Vel R. Phillips Avenue is crucial for bringing in more foot traffic.
A number of proposals for the former Bradley Center site are currently under review as the Bucks work to “figure out exactly what’s the best fit, what’s going to complement what we already have,” said Michael Belot, senior vice president of Bucks Ventures and Development.
All available parcels have garnered “overwhelming” interest from hotel, office, retail and residential tenants from across the country, Belot said.
The Bucks will announce new Deer District tenant details in the next couple of months, but construction will have to wait until after the DNC, when Milwaukee and Fiserv Forum will again be in the national spotlight.
“We’re still at the beginning of something, but at least the change and growth and development is palpable now,” Eitel said.