Grunau: Build a new arena for the Bucks in the Park East

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:23 am

For years, BMO Harris Bradley Center officials have said that the arena, built in 1988, is not able to generate enough revenue to keep an NBA franchise in Milwaukee for the long term.

In May, Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl also said the team needs a new arena, and he pledged to make a significant financial contribution to the project.

But there has been little discussion, at least publicly, about where a new arena would be built and how exactly it would be paid for. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) is forming a task force to study the issue, but political officials have been mostly silent.

Given an invitation to present his dream development project at the BizTimes Commercial Real Estate & Development Conference, Grucon Group president Gary Grunau decided to tackle the Milwaukee arena question head-on.

Grunau says a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, the Marquette University men’s basketball team, and other teams and events, should be built in the two-block area bounded by Fourth and Sixth Streets and McKinley and Juneau Avenues in the Park East corridor in downtown Milwaukee.

“We’ve got to keep the Bucks in our city and we’ve got to keep them downtown,” Grunau said.

Some of the funds for the project could be provided by extending the 0.1 percent Miller Park sales tax in Milwaukee County, but not in the four suburban counties in the current stadium taxing district.

“Milwaukee County is going to have to say that it is important enough to keep the Bucks downtown that we extend that tax,” Grunau said. “I don’t think you could get the other counties to extend the tax.”

If Milwaukee lost the Bucks it would have a devastating impact on downtown Milwaukee, particularly the bars and restaurants in the Old World Third Street and Water Street nightlife districts, Grunau said.

Grunau said he has thought about the Park East site for a new arena since 2008, when he was working with Dallas-based Gatehouse Capital on the Milwaukee Hotel Palomar and Residents development, one block to the east. That $150 million, 22-story project would have included 63 luxury condominiums and a 175-room hotel. But the project died when the real estate market collapsed during the Great Recession.

The Bradley Center is becoming obsolete for the NBA because newer basketball arenas have more revenue producing amenities, including clubs, restaurants and stores, putting the Bucks at a competitive disadvantage.

Because of the need for those amenities, modern NBA arenas require a much larger footprint than the Bradley Center.

The Park East corridor site between 4th, 6th, Juneau and McKinley is the only vacant site downtown that would be large enough for a new NBA arena, Grunau said.

“At any other (downtown) site you would have to do a lot of demolition,” he said.

If the American Airlines Center (home of the Dallas Mavericks) was placed on the Park East site, Juneau Avenue would need to be curved slightly to the south to make it fit.

“The square footage of these (new NBA arenas) is just immense,” Grunau said.

In addition to its size, the Park East site is also highly accessible with easy access from McKinley Avenue to the freeway system.

In his dream development project, Grunau calls for a two phase plan:

For the first phase the Park East site between 4th, 6th, Juneau and McKinley should be reserved for a new arena and leased to the BMO Harris Bradley Center for 4-6 years. The site should be converted, temporarily, into a landscaped parking lot for the Bradley Center and Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), he said.

“The Bradley Center has a parking shortage,” Grunau said. “MATC needs additional parking. There’s a big parking deficit.”

For phase two of Grunau’s dream project, construction of the new arena would begin in 2016 and a 2,500-stall parking structure would be built southeast of 6th Street and Juneau Avenue. The U.S. Cellular Arena should be demolished to create a public plaza or a new development site. “It would be a great hotel site,” Grunau said.

Also, Grunau says that once the new arena is complete the Bradley Center should renovated and a new floor should be installed at the suite level. That would create an 80,000-square-foot column-free playing surface that could accommodate three indoor-size soccer fields or one full-size regulation soccer or lacrosse field. The lower level of the Bradley Center could be used as an ice rink.

Under Grunau’s dream plan, the Bradley Center would become a community sports and recreation facility. But the upper level field would have 10,000 seats from the Bradley Center’s current upper bowl that could provide seating for some competitive events.

“I don’t look at this as housing a professional sports team,” Grunau said.

Mid-rise residential development with ground level entertainment, restaurant and some retail space should be encouraged along the south side of Juneau Avenue and along the west side of Fourth Street, south of the new arena, Grunau said.

The Park East block east of the new arena could support smaller development projects, including a 110-room Element Hotel, which has already been proposed there, Grunau said. Some of the block cannot be built on because of underground utilities.

A new arena and other development nearby would dramatically improve the McKinley Avenue corridor, which is now one of the major entrances to downtown Milwaukee but is currently dominated by bleak, vacant lots, Grunau said.

“It’s ugly, it’s horrible,” said Grunau, who calls his vision “The Threshold Project: A New Entrance and Beginning.”

“The psychological impact of driving past that (new) stadium, ‘Wow this is Milwaukee,’ is going to be immense,” Grunau said.

But Grunau knows support for any public financing for a new arena would be a tough sell. Much of the community is hostile to taxes for professional sports venues and the Bucks have usually had sub-par teams for several years. Attendance at Bucks games has dipped as fan support has waned.

However, the Milwaukee Brewers faced a similar situation in the 1990s before Miller Park was built.

“It’s going to be a difficult selling job,” Grunau said. “A political case will have to be made.”

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