Make no mistake, Milwaukee is on the clock. It must secure a site and a plan to finance a new downtown arena for the Milwaukee Bucks by 2017, or the NBA will buy the team back and move it to another city.
As much as $150 million of the $450 million to $500 million costs to build a new arena will probably need to come from the public sector. Somehow. But that public financing has thus far lacked a public champion. So far, neither Gov. Scott Walker nor Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett nor Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele have publicly embraced a specific plan for public financing for a new arena.
Cue Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and BizTimes Milwaukee’s Best in Business Community Leader of the Year. Over the years, the MMAC and 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. 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.
BizTimes recently asked Sheehy some questions about his strategy to be the point guard for a new downtown arena.
BizTimes: Why did you decide to spearhead this cause?
Sheehy: “MMAC’s membership has embraced a vision for Milwaukee that balances a competitive business climate with a strong quality of life. This vision depends on a Milwaukee that is globally competitive, driven by high-value, high wage jobs, and capable of sustaining a vibrant quality of life. Economic development today puts a premium on talent – growing it, retaining it and attracting it. Milwaukee cannot let its ‘quality of place’ deteriorate and expect to remain a region of choice. Smartly investing in our natural and built assets is critical to sustaining prosperity.”
BizTimes: Why is it important that the region invest in its cultural assets?
Sheehy: “Certainly, well-educated citizens are the foundation. But throughout history when you look at great metros, those that drive innovation, creativity and strong economies, you will always find attention paid to their arts, culture and entertainment assets. Does Milwaukee have some new strategy to buck this trend by disinvesting in its cultural assets, as it is now doing? Are we developing some novel way to invest in these assets by prescribing that only part of the region pay for assets that benefit the whole region? The MMAC wants to see this region remain an attractive place to live, work, play and learn. It’s the whole equation that separates those communities that prosper from those that falter.”
BizTimes: Why is it important that Milwaukee keeps the Bucks?
Sheehy: “The Bucks are not Milwaukee’s most important asset. But having the NBA brand and industry in Milwaukee is an asset. Global exposure, an anchor for a central entertainment district, jobs and tax revenue are all part of this ‘asset’ definition. The question before us is, what is the appropriate investment in this asset if we want be one of 30 markets in the world to hold an NBA team? In the midst of this discussion, the MMAC is working to find the necessary balance that makes the case that there is a good return on investing in this asset beyond the basketball court.”
BizTimes: How difficult was it to go up in front of a room of business leaders, representing the region’s business lobby, and make a push for new taxes to get this done?
Sheehy: “Like any successful business, Milwaukee has to wisely invest in its assets. MMAC understands and applauds the fiscal stability of our current state legislative leadership and Gov. Walker. And for that matter, elected city and regional leaders that have delivered balanced budgets and low debt. So, no, it’s not easy to say we should consider raising new revenue to invest in our cultural/parks assets. But the alternative, to stick our heads in the sand and ignore a dysfunctional funding system and a decade or more of deferred decisions, is not leadership. Business leaders expect us to put facts on the table, solicit input and make decisions – that’s what they do, and that’s a big part of what they value about their membership.”
BizTimes: How optimistic are you that a new arena will be financed and built in downtown Milwaukee?
Sheehy: “I am very optimistic that the leadership at the state and local level will make the right decision and find the appropriate way to support the private investment already on the table for a new entertainment center. The day I stop being optimistic about our challenges is the day I hang out the ‘gone fishing’ sign on my office door.”