Hearing considers $614 million public plan to fund Milwaukee Brewers stadium upgrade

The Wisconsin Assembly held a public hearing on a Republican plan to give the Milwaukee Brewers about $614,000,000 in public funding to repair and renovate its stadium and extend the team's lease to 2050.

Associated Press

October 5, 2023 • Southeast Region

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An aerial photo shows a baseball stadium with an open retractable roof and a sign over its home plate entrance reading American Family Field, surrounded by empty parking lots and roads, with an urban landscape of building and trees extending to the horizon.

American Family Field is seen from the air on Sept. 15, 2023, in Milwaukee. A Wisconsin Assembly committee held a hearing on Oct. 5, 2023, on a Republican-authored proposal to hand the Milwaukee Brewers more than $614 million in public funding for repair and renovation at the baseball stadium. (Credit: AP Photo / Morry Gash)

AP News

By Todd Richmond, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The chief architect of a plan to hand the Milwaukee Brewers more than $614 million to cover stadium improvements defended his proposal on Oct. 5 in front of a legislative committee, promising the deal will keep the team in Milwaukee for another generation without new taxes.

Republican state Rep. Rob Brooks has developed a pair of bills that call for handing public dollars from the state, the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to the team. He argued for the bills at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis during a public hearing organized by the state Assembly.

The team’s fans are reeling after the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the Brewers 5-2 on Oct. 4, eliminating them from the playoffs. Brooks began his presentation by joking that he doesn’t blame the committee for the loss.

He spent the next hour and a half promoting the proposal. He stressed that the package creates no new taxes, instead using income taxes on players’ salaries as a funding stream. He warned that if the Brewers were to leave Wisconsin the state, the city and the county would lose tens of millions of dollars in income and sales taxes. That could translate to dips in state aid to municipalities across the state.

Public funding for professional sports facilities is hotly debated across the country. The team’s principal owner, Mark Attanasio, has an estimated net worth of $700 million, according to Yahoo Finance. The team itself is valued at around $1.6 billion, according to Forbes. Still, the Brewers have been working for months to secure public funding for stadium repairs and upgrades.

The team so far has not threatened to leave Milwaukee if it doesn’t get public help, but relocation is always a possibility if a city willing to pay the team’s bills steps forward.

Democrats on the committee gave Brooks’ proposal a cool reception. Rep. Tod Ohnstad, a Kenosha Democrat, questioned whether it’s worth investing in baseball at all.

He said the sport is losing popularity, adding that he “tortured” himself watching the Diamondbacks sweep the Brewers out of the playoffs. He said the proposal needs substantial changes to earn his vote.

Other Democrats complained the proposal asks for too much money from the cash-strapped city and county. The city increased its sales tax by 2% and the county doubled its sales tax earlier in 2023 as part of a plan to avoid bankruptcy and deep cuts to services.

Brooks countered that the proposal calls for winterizing the stadium so the Brewers can rent it out year-round for events such as concerts, generating more sales tax for the state and local governments.

He added that he’s working on an amendment that calls for attaching a fee on tickets for non-baseball events that would be split between the state, the city and the county. He’s also working on another amendment that would create a group that would study developing the stadium’s parking lots into a restaurant district that would provide more tax revenue.

He argued that losing the Brewers would put the city and county in an even worse financial position. Keeping the Brewers in Milwaukee provides businesses with the certainty they need to invest in the area around the stadium, he said.

Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers’ vice president of business operations, told the committee he wished he had to leave for another playoff game, but “baseball sometimes breaks your heart.”

He stressed that the team wants to stay in Milwaukee but needs certainty and emphasized that the Brewers would chip in $100 million for renovations. He said the team makes Milwaukee attractive and generates tax revenue from fans who visit the stadium from across the state and the Midwest.

Schlesinger rejected suggestions to develop restaurants and bars in the stadium’s parking lots in an attempt to generate more tax revenue, saying that would exacerbate parking shortages and hurt tailgating traditions.

Hunter Hamberlin, state policy manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayer Protection Alliance, blasted the proposal as “corporate welfare” and urged legislators to focus on the state’s real needs rather than a baseball stadium.

Milwaukee community advocate Beverly Hamilton-Williams accused the committee of disrespecting residents by making them wait hours to speak while giving lawmakers and Brewers officials the first slots of the day. She said it was an “insult and degrading” to expect the city’s Black population to pay $200 million to fund a stadium most of them never visit.

Reports commissioned by the Brewers and another by a state consultant found the stadium’s glass outfield doors, seats and concourses should be replaced. Its luxury suites and technology such as its sound system and video scoreboard need upgrades, and its signature retractable roof needs repairs. Fire suppression systems, parking lots, elevators and escalators need work, too.

Under Brooks’ proposal, the state would give the team $60.8 million next fiscal year and up to $20 million each year after that into 2046. The city of Milwaukee would contribute a total of $202 million and Milwaukee County would kick in $135 million by 2050.

The team would contribute about $100 million and extend its lease at American Family Field through 2050, keeping Major League Baseball in its smallest market for another 27 years.

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo attached to the legislation, baseball operations at the stadium currently generate about $19.8 million annually in state and local taxes. That figure is expected to grow to $50.7 million annually by 2050, according to the memo.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed giving the team almost $300 million in the state budget in exchange for the team extending its lease by 13 years, to 2043. Evers would have pulled the money from the state’s $7 billion surplus, but Republican lawmakers killed the plan after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he wanted a longer lease extension.

The governor told reporters on Oct. 5 that he’s concerned about how much the city and county will have to contribute but he’d probably support any stadium proposal that comes across his desk.

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