Lines drawn in debate over new arena

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:16 pm

A day after an announcement for a new investment group to take ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks, Alderman Nik Kovac and Milwaukee County Supervisor David Bowen provided a glimpse of the debate that is sure to follow over public financing for a new arena.

Speaking in an interview with BizTimes after a Milwaukee Press Club “Behind the Headlines” forum at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Thursday, Kovac expressed vehement opposition to any public tax dollars going toward the new arena.

“The NBA has been printing free money for 20 years. I’m not asking them not to make money. I’m just asking them to cover the capital investment that allows them to make money. I’m an old-fashioned guy; I still like capitalism,” said Kovac, who represents Milwaukee Third District. “I don’t believe in Vladimir Putin-style corporate socialism, which is what the NBA believes in. And you can quote me on that.”

Kovac added, “The talk of contribution to me should be off the table – any public contribution that does not involve a direct return on investment. I will loan them money, I will bond them money, but in my opinion, we shouldn’t be giving them a dime. It’s a private business.”

Kovac said taxpayer funding could be better spent on other priorities.

“Will I be glad you didn’t leave? Yes,” Kovac said. “Do I want to spend $200 million on you not leaving when I could have spent $200 million on public transit, on public education, on stabilizing our housing stock? It’s not even close. When you actually look at the things the public expects you to invest money in, this is not one of them. (Owners of professional sports teams) have managed to create, frankly, an extortion racket, in which the public pays them or else. And they do that through a legal monopoly, which shouldn’t be legal in my opinion, especially given that they’re extorting municipalities that clearly have other needs.”

Kovac said that if the public funding was through a loan, or a tax incremental financing (TIF) district, or if the new owners would be willing to pay property taxes on the new arena, it would be “a whole different” discussion.

“It’s absolutely in the public’s interest to give them a loan,” Kovac said. “I just don’t understand how it’s in the public’s interest to hand a billionaire another $200 million.”

Kovac said he is a big sports fan, but there are other issues at play.

“I am all for professional sports. I’m a huge Packer fan; I’m a huge Bucks fan. I come to (Bucks) games, I go to Brewers game; I was just (at Miller Park) this week. I have the memories of 1982, the memories of 2001, of 1997; these are huge memories for me. They improved my life as an individual,” Kovac said. “But as a taxpayer, I don’t get anything out of it. As a taxpayer, I do get something out of public education. For instance, I got educated by the public schools. As a taxpayer, the price of my bus ticket doesn’t pay for the full ride, but my taxes do. As an automobile owner, I don’t pay for the roads except through my taxes. These are the things the public should be spending money on. These guys have a lot of money. They can afford to build the arena. It would just be dumb for them to build the arena with their own money when they could get other people’s money for free. I have a fundamental philosophical disagreement with public risk and private profit. And I think the world is upside down in sports arena financing. And I think all municipalities are suffering for it.”

However, Bowen expressed support of public funding to pay for some of the new arena’s costs. Bowen issued the following statement:

“I want to thank former Sen. Herb Kohl for his commitment to our community. I commend him for working so diligently to keep our NBA franchise, the Milwaukee Bucks, right here in Milwaukee, and for passing the baton to new owners who are every bit as committed to team’s success and the success of the community as Kohl himself. The generous donations of $200 million for a new arena are a great first step in assuring the public that a new arena can be built and the Milwaukee Bucks can stay in our community. The entire community, residents and businesses alike, should be proud of Kohl and his decision to build his legacy here in Milwaukee. The baton has officially been passed to new owners Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, who are clearly committed to building on top of that legacy with new leadership and investment. As vice-chair of the Economic Development Committee, I am pleased by this huge boost to the future of development of Milwaukee County and southeastern Wisconsin. The new arena can be accomplished together under the deadline of 2017 with private and public buy-in that supports the arena and other public resources needed to expand our economy for a better Milwaukee. I hope all involved are willing to work together in the same spirit of generosity and community as Herb Kohl has displayed in these latest developments.”

Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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