Reporter’s notebook: Time to rethink Wisconsin Center District?

(Editor’s note: BizTimes reporter Dan Shafer shares some additional commentary from the panelists at the Milwaukee Press Club’s “Behind the Headlines” event held April 17 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center about the future of the Milwaukee Bucks and the options for building a new arena.)

Quote from panelist Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Foundation: “I understand the location of looking at tearing down the Milwaukee Theatre and U.S. Cellular (Arena). But I have a note of caution myself, and Alderman (Michael) Murphy mentioned combining the Wisconsin Center District board with the Bradley Center, because to me, it’s like giving the keys to the captain of the Titanic to run the new vessel you put out in the ocean. I don’t think that equates to success…I hate to be the one to come out and say it, but I’m going to say it: Look at the amount of shows that we (at the Pabst Theater) are doing annually and then look at the fact that those places are empty on a regular basis. I’m not quite sure I would want to give those guys the keys to operate anything at this point in time.”

Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy: “We have the Wisconsin Center District, which has ability for taxation created by the state. They collect hotel/motel taxes and some car rental taxes. We should seriously consider looking at combining both the Bradley Center board and the Wisconsin Center District board, eliminating duplication, and have one larger arm really dealing with the whole issue of the governance of this going forward, because they’re all interconnected. Same thing with the convention visitor’s center. This is a cultural entertainment complex, we should have it all under one issuance and not have these separate boards going back and forth…This is the opportunity to really look at the bigger issue of governance going forward about all these entities…On the issue of the existing building, I think we need to step back. Recently, there was a decision by the Wisconsin Center District board to invest several million dollars in terms of their new scoreboard and other issues. Perhaps people should take a breath before we start making those type of commitments in millions of dollars with those facilities until we find out exactly where we’re going with this building in the next six-to-twelve months.”

After the program, Alderman Nik Kovac told BizTimes: “Alderman Murphy raises a great point – they’re $28 million in public debt, but that’s a weight around our neck whether we tear it down or not, because that theater was a colossal mistake. And Gary (Witt) is right – the Wisconsin Center District shouldn’t be running anything. I think Ald. Murphy was being polite and diplomatic when he said to merge them. Basically, what he means is get rid of the Wisconsin Center District and let people the public can trust with their money to not invest tens of millions of dollars in a theater where they don’t even check with musical acts about the kind of backstage space they need. It was a colossal mistake.”

Attorney Franklyn Gimbel, chair of the Wisconsin Center District board, told BizTimes, “At the present time, talking about tearing down buildings owned by the Wisconsin center district is way, way premature until a lot of other ducks are in a row…Tearing down the U.S. Cellular Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre is a bad idea. It makes little sense. They’re both cash-positive venues. They both generate more income than we do expense for the events that we run. I’d be greatly surprised if both buildings together were appropriate size, shape footprint for new sports and entertainment center. A lot of people are just shooting from the hip.”

Gimbel said the Wisconsin Center District “borrowed $40 million on the Milwaukee Theatre” and still has significant debt on both the Milwaukee Theatre and the Convention Center properties.

Gimbel said some regular tenants, such as “the circus, Disney on Ice, UWM (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) basketball (and) the Milwaukee Wave,” would lose their chosen venue of the U.S. Cellular Arena is demolished.

“The Wisconsin Center District board just approved replacing seats over a three-year period, along with the scoreboard. It was approved at a meeting of the board of directors within the last few months,” Gimbel said.

The cost of the scoreboard is more than $2 million, and the cost of new seats is an estimated $1.5 million.

“The Wisconsin Center District is looking to expand,” Gimbel said. “We’re hoping expansion of the convention center would be part of any financing agreement put forth by the task force.”

On the notion of consolidating with the Bradley Center board, Gimbel said, “We had a conversation about consolidation and they never ended with an agreement…The Bradley Center Board was never in favor of that, and they submarined any efforts for a merger. I think there should be collaboration between the Bradley Center and the Wisconsin Center District. I think we have common interests, and I don’t think we should be competing with each other…There should be collaboration between all entertainment and sports venues in town.”

Dan Shafer is a reporter at BizTimes.

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Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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