Uihlein urges demolitions to make way for new arena

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:15 pm

The behind-the-scenes discussions about a new downtown Milwaukee venue for a new arena is taking another turn this week with a letter from David Uihlein Jr., the son of Jane Bradley Pettit, the late philanthropist who donated the funds to build the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

BizTimes obtained a copy of a letter Uihlein sent to stakeholders of the downtown entertainment district, essentially giving them his family’s blessing to demolish the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre to make room for a new, multi-room arena that would be the new home of the Milwaukee Bucks, would connect to the Wisconsin Center convention center and would revitalize the near west side of downtown.

“Milwaukee has a once in a generation opportunity to construct a sports and entertainment complex that will ensure we retain our NBA franchise and jumpstart the renaissance west of the river. It will require unity and teamwork, and financial support from the private and public sectors,” stated the letter from Uihlein, who is an architect and a principal at Uihlein Wilson Architects. “The Bradley Center, amazingly, is obsolete by NBA standards. What reason is there for preserving this place as we contemplate new construction?”

The UWM Panther Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre are operated by the Wisconsin Center District, which has taxing authority granted by the state. Uihlein’s letter described the Milwaukee Theatre as a “hastily conceived effort that has proved to be an under-performer in a town with too many theater seats.”

Uihlein added, “We already have a dedicated taxing component for support. Taxes on food, beverage, hotel rooms and car rentals in the downtown area supply sufficient capital to run the Convention Center, Arena and Milwaukee Theatre. It’s time to stop competing and join forces. The battle of egos that characterize the competition is unproductive. The Wisconsin Center District must relinquish the benefit of this tax to the new entity.”

However, Franklyn Gimbel, chairman of the Wisconsin Center District, said he opposes Uihlein’s ideal to replace the Panther Arena and the Milwaukee Theatre with a new arena. The WCD still must pay off more than $27 million in bonds for the Milwaukee Theatre project, and the arena and theater provide positive cash flow for the WCD, other than the debt service for the theater, Gimbel said. The arena provides a needed home for the UWM Men’s Basketball team and the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team and events such as Disney on Ice, the Tripoli Shrine Circus, and dozens of graduation ceremonies each year, he said. The Bradley Center, and its future replacement, does not have scheduling availability to accommodate the tenants and events held at Panther Arena, he said.

In addition, the cost to tear down the theater and arena would add additional cost to a new arena project, Gimbel said.

Instead, Gimbel says a new arena should be built on vacant land north of the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

“There’s nothing to tear down (on that site),” he said. “They could start construction tomorrow.”

After a new arena is built, then the Bradley Center should be torn down and replaced with a corridor of retail space, hospitality venues and a park that connects the new arena with the Panther Arena, the Milwaukee Theatre and the convention center, Gimbel said.

In response to the Uihlein proposal, Marc Marotta, chairman of the BMO Harris Bradley Center board of directors, today issued the following statement: “The BMO Harris Bradley Center Board has received correspondence from David Uihlein offering some interesting thoughts and intriguing ideas relating to the future of our building, some of the Wisconsin Center District facilities and a potential location for a possible new multi-purpose downtown entertainment venue. His letter also reinforces his deep commitment to the community and his philanthropic record. It is well thought out and offers positive ideas that warrant serious consideration as the community continues to discuss these issues. The future of the BMO Harris Bradley Center is our board’s primary responsibility, and we as a Board continue to examine the significant fiscal and operational issues facing our facility in the next few years. David’s letter serves a very useful purpose in helping to generate and promote positive discussion not only about the future of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, but also about the future of downtown Milwaukee and what we want our community to be. David’s letter will help spark important discussion in the community and among all the parties involved in the broader debate of how we keep Milwaukee as a big league city. I am confident that our board will take his suggestions seriously as we consider the future, and we welcome the chance to discuss his ideas further.”

Uihlein pledged “a significant contribution to the selection and acquisition of architectural/engineering talent to design” a new arena.

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