Monnat: Make Milwaukee an amateur sports destination

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

Several years ago, community leaders in Indianapolis crafted a plan to use sports to revitalize their city. Major sports venues were built and for years the city has attracted major championship pro and college events, and the fans who come to attend those events have filled hotel rooms and patronized downtown Indy stores and restaurants.

Robert Monnat, the chief operating officer of Milwaukee-based Mandel Group Inc., has a similar dream for Milwaukee. But instead of trying to attract big-time sports events, Monnat says that Milwaukee should build several modest domed venues on the west side of its downtown to attract youth and amateur sports events and tournaments that could be played year-round.

Monnat has traveled all over the Midwest to take his sons to numerous youth sports competitions. Many don’t realize how many people do that, Monnat said, and no city has fully positioned itself to become a major destination for youth and amateur sports events and tournaments, he said. Indoor facilities could be especially attractive in the Midwest to give athletes places to compete during the cold weather months.

If his vision was realized in Milwaukee, the result would be a dramatically revitalized downtown west of the Milwaukee River, Monnat says.

His vision, called the Milwaukee Regional Amateur Sports Center: build five domed sports venues on vacant lots north of the convention center, north of the Bradley Center and on the block between Fourth and Sixth streets and Juneau and McKinley avenues in the Park East corridor.

The domed structures would be relatively affordable to build and could provide a unique cluster of venues that could accommodate multiple sports year-round. Soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse, ultimate Frisbee and other sports events and tournaments could use the facilities. Few cities have indoor facilities large enough for full-size athletic fields that could host sports competition year-round. If built, they would make Milwaukee a major amateur sports destination, Monnat said.

“There would be thousands and thousands of people coming to play,” Monnat said. “This is a way to create a completely new attraction that would put Milwaukee on the map.”

For those who doubt that anybody would come to Milwaukee to compete in domed sports facilities downtown, Monnat points to Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells. The resort added an inflated dome that creates a 90,000-square-foot facility, which is used for numerous sports events. The facility draws sports events and the athletes who come to compete and their families help fill Chula Vista hotel rooms.

Downtown Milwaukee is much better positioned than a Wisconsin Dells resort to be a major amateur sports events destination, Monnat said. Milwaukee has a far larger population and is closer to the Chicago area than The Dells.

If Milwaukee built indoor athletic facilities that allowed it to grab a significant share of the youth and amateur sports market, a massive number of visitors would come to Milwaukee, especially during the winter, when soccer, baseball and other sports typically played outdoors are only played in warm weather climates, Monnat said.

Those visitors would provide a major boost to Milwaukee hotels, which do great business in the summer but struggle with low occupancy during the winter. Marcus Corp. chief executive officer Greg Marcus has strongly criticized public subsidies for new hotels in Milwaukee and has said that little is being done to create more demand for new hotel rooms while supply continues to rise. Monnat says his vision of dome sports facilities downtown would create tremendous new demand for hotel rooms.

All of the athletes who come to play in the domed facilities, and their family members, would also create a significant boost to retail traffic on long-struggling West Wisconsin Avenue, Monnat said. He recommends that the Shops of Grand Avenue move all retail, including the food court, to the ground level and transform itself into an urban sports outlet retail center by evicting the non-sports related tenants and replacing them with sporting goods and sports apparel stores such as Nike, Reebok, Under Armor and other sports stores commonly found at outlet malls.

In addition, Milwaukee should prepare for the inevitable, the eventual closing of the Boston Store at Grand Avenue, Monnat said. The Boston Store could be replaced with a big-box sporting goods store such as Dick’s or Sports Authority, or perhaps a series of mid-sized stores such as Laack & Joys, Monnat said.

The amateur athletes visiting Milwaukee would flock to the sports-themed stores, he said. “This would drive so much traffic it would be a joke,” Monnat said.

Essentially, Monnat’s dream is for Milwaukee to pursue a blue ocean, the vast and largely untapped market for youth and amateur sports teams in search of places to play during the cold weather months, rather than a red ocean, the highly-competitive convention market, in which Milwaukee is at a significant disadvantage compared to many other cities.

The site north of the convention center has long been planned for a third phase expansion of the facility. But Monnat says it would be foolish to spend millions to expand a convention center that struggles to attract events when a domed sports venue could be built instead that he says would actually attract numerous events.

“Milwaukee is a lousy convention destination for nine months of the year,” Monnat said. “People do not go to conventions in places that are not warm. They just don’t.”

The Park East corridor site between Fourth and Sixth streets and Juneau and McKinley avenues has been considered by some to be a good location for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

However, that places the arena too far north, reducing its benefit to the rest of downtown Milwaukee, Monnat said.

“The further you move it away from Wisconsin Avenue the less impact you will have on (improving) West Wisconsin Avenue,” he said.

Instead, the Bradley Center should be gutted and dramatically remodeled as a basketball-focused facility for the Bucks and Marquette. The Admirals, Wave and other teams should play at the U.S. Cellular Arena, a smaller facility more appropriate for the crowds those teams draw, Monnat said. Monnat suggests the community spend about $100 million to upgrade the Bradley Center and $25 million to upgrade the arena.

The Bradley Center, U.S. Cellular Arena and the domed sports facilities should all be run by a single entity, Monnat said. The Wisconsin Center District should only oversee the convention center and the Milwaukee Theater, Monnat said.

“Have sports-minded people running the sports venues,” he said.

The Wisconsin Avenue retail corridor and Fourth Street sports corridor would be connected by the now-vacant Fourth and Wisconsin site, just south of the convention center. Monnat’s vision for that site, which he calls “the knuckle,” is for a 15-story development with three floors of entertainment venues and theaters and a 400-room convention hotel on top of that.

The indoor sports venues also could provide places for local residents to play sports year-round, rather than hibernate during the winter. They could give many Milwaukee-area residents a new reason to come downtown, Monnat said. The facilities could create a place that brings the community together, he said.

“What Milwaukee needs is some place where everyone comes and competes in sports,” Monnat said. “I think the power of sports to draw people is substantial.”

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