It’s hard to imagine how Fiserv Forum could have gotten off to a better start.
In its first year of operation, the new arena in downtown Milwaukee has been packed again and again, as the Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette University men’s basketball teams are having great seasons and several big-name artists have played concerts there.
Some people will never be happy that state and local taxpayers provided $250 million to build the arena. But the arena is generating a tremendous amount of economic activity. And the events held there provide an important boost to the quality of life for the region and state, which is vital for businesses’ efforts to attract talent here.
While the arena project is finished, Milwaukee faces several new funding challenges, including much-needed upgrades for some of its cultural assets, the county parks system and the downtown convention center.
The Milwaukee Public Museum and the Mitchell Park Domes, in particular, are desperately in need of major investment.
The Milwaukee Public Museum’s current facility was completed in 1962. The aging building has numerous problems with water leaks, mold issues and temperature control that threaten its collection of millions of artifacts and is putting the museum’s accreditation at risk. The MPM is working on plans for a new $100 million building.
Meanwhile, the Mitchell Park Domes are literally crumbling. The Domes, completed in 1967, were closed temporarily in 2016 for repairs because of chunks of falling concrete. But that was only a temporary fix and a full restoration of the Domes could cost $75 million.
Other funding needs include $240 million to $270 million to expand the Wisconsin Center downtown and $345 million for a replacement for the Milwaukee County Safety Building.
According to a recent report at WisBusiness.com, a media partner of BizTimes Milwaukee, officials are discussing plans for a financing package of perhaps $1 billion to address all of these needs. The WisBusiness report said the discussion has included the idea of a referendum for a local sales tax increase.
That talk comes as the Miller Park sales tax is finally nearing its end. Last year, the stadium district estimated the 0.1 percent tax would sunset by the end of this year or early 2020.
Gaining voter support for another sales tax increase will be difficult and will have to focus on Milwaukee County. There is no chance voters from outside of Milwaukee County would support a sales tax increase for Milwaukee projects. And it won’t be easy to convince Milwaukee County voters that these investments are a good use of their tax dollars.
A good model for Milwaukee could be Oklahoma City, which established a 1 percent sales tax in the 1990s for numerous quality of life projects, including an arena, minor league ballpark, new library, music hall renovation, convention center expansion and more. Those projects have been credited with revitalizing OKC.