Over the years, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and its president, Tim Sheehy, have been vocal and ardent opponents of new taxes.
That’s why more than a few business leaders were still trying to process the messages Sheehy gave them when he spoke to the Milwaukee Rotary Club recently about the need to raise public financing for the region’s cultural and entertainment venues.
Sheehy took the unprecedented lead for that cause when he formed the Cultural and Entertainment Capital Needs Task Force last year. He has been filling a vacuum created by the lack of any elected leaders willing to fall on that sword.
Milwaukee, Sheehy told the Rotarians, has fallen behind cities such as Denver, Cleveland and even Oklahoma City that have found ways to invest public dollars in their cultural and entertainment venues. Denver has used a regional sales tax, Cleveland has used a consumption tax on cigarettes and liquor, and Oklahoma City has used three referenda to raise public support for investing in its downtown.
In Milwaukee, new Bucks owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens have pledged $100 million toward a new arena to replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Former Bucks owner Herb Kohl has pledged another $100 million for the cause. Other private investors have committed at least $50 million, and the team could garner another $50 million or so from selling the naming rights for the new arena. Still, that leaves a gap of about $150 million to build a $450 million new structure.
“This is going to have to come from the community. It’s going to have to come from the region,” Sheehy said. “Those communities that play in a regional sandbox are going to be successful, and those that don’t are going to see the sand run out on them. The preference is that we do this on a metropolitan basis.”
In addition to building a new arena, the Task Force is proposing to add investments in the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum and War Memorial Center and the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts for inclusion in the new referenda, as well as investments in local parks and other facilities.
“We are at a crossroads. People live, work and play in a regional economy,” Sheehy said.
To attract the millennials to fill the new jobs that will be created in the future, quality of life – including the arts and entertainment – will be crucial for Milwaukee companies trying to attract and keep the best and brightest in the city, Sheehy said.
However, Sheehy faces the arduous task of building local support for separate referenda to raise sales taxes in Milwaukee and each of the three “WOW” counties: Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington.
That alone will be quite an arduous challenge. But he then will have to convince the state legislature to vote to allow those local referenda to go on the ballot. Ultimately, the referenda would need the support of the governor.
For the sake of conversation, let’s ponder a few moves ahead on the chess board…Hypothetically, Gov. Scott Walker could win re-election on Nov. 4. Hypothetically, Walker could decide to run for president in 2016, leaving the governor’s mansion. Hypothetically, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who has close ties to the Tea Party, which denounces bigger government and new taxes, could be governor.
Suffice to say, Sheehy will face an uphill climb, no matter what.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.