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When will the Public have a Say in Planning for a New Bucks Arena?

The NBA is demanding a new venue for the Milwaukee Bucks by 2017, or it threatens to move the team.

That’s generated a lot of discussion about a possible new arena. The big unanswered question is whether tax dollars would be used. The public has not yet been asked for its opinion.

The only entity that’s been pulling citizens together to talk about the issue is a group called Common Ground. For months, it’s been calling attention to dilapidated public playgrounds and athletic fields, and asking for an infusion of public money for improvements. Common Ground says Milwaukee County’s children are “as important, if not more important, than the Milwaukee Bucks.”

The two candidates for governor also talked about the potential role of public funding, during their debate last Friday night. Democrat Mary Burke tentatively backed the use of taxpayer dollars for a new arena.

“I know from my experience at Trek Bicycle, sometimes you have to make investments in order to grow. The public option should be on the table, but it should be the last one. And we have to protect the taxpayers here, but we also have to understand the impact it has on the community, not only the direct impact but the indirect impact on Milwaukee, because we have to make sure that Milwaukee is a thriving community,” Burke said.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker said he would not support a new tax. But he’s open to talking about other options that could touch state money.

“Part of our goal is to try and assess, and we’ve been working on this over the past few months, assess what is the actual amount the Milwaukee Bucks and their players -- because remember, the players, not only the Bucks but any of the visiting players are taxed on a prorated basis every time they play a game here in the state of Wisconsin -- what is the actual dollar amount, and therefore, what would we lose. And I think that is a legitimate basis upon which to begin any discussion with members of the Legislature and the public,” Walker said.

Tim Sheehy, head of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, liked what he heard from the candidates.

“I think they both understand the importance of a civic center that gives Milwaukee world class entertainment, and certainly one of 30 markets in the world that has NBA basketball,” Sheehy says.

The MMAC has been involved in discussions about a new arena. Sheehy believes public money will be part of the mix, and when there’s a proposal, residents will get a say.

“There are a number of ways in which this could play out, and so it’s either directly contacting elected officials and of course, speaking out,” Sheehy says.

Or Sheehy says, perhaps there could be a referendum about public financing.

Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy says he realizes there’s no plan yet on the table to examine. But he says it’s unfortunate there’s been virtually no public engagement, including on where a new venue might be built.

“Well right now, it’s all behind the scenes -- not involving me, I can assure you -- at this point in time. But right now, what I hear being discussed is involving very powerful people in the city who have great wealth and they are now making suggested decisions as to where the site will be located. But in the end, the public’s voice will have to be heard, and I’ll make a point of it that it is,” Murphy says.

If planners want to use tax money, state leaders would have to agree. Back in the 1990s, citizens gave legislators an earful, when they were deciding whether to boost the sales tax in five counties to build Miller Park.

Murphy anticipates the public will begin to learn more about a potential basketball arena, following November’s election.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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