Milwaukee’s NBA franchise is leveraging its $524 million arena to (hopefully) bring in at least a billion in investment in the surrounding Park East corridor. Here’s how the Bucks plan to do it.

It’s too loud to hear the giant television outside Fiserv Forum announce that the Bucks just won game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Celebrating fans hurl plastic cups into the air, vacating their beer contents on a crowd of thousands in the outdoor plaza at the center of the Deer District, the 30-acre neighborhood the Bucks are turning into “Milwaukee’s Gathering Place.”

After 18 years without a playoff series victory, the team is three wins from the Finals. There is joy in the air, ecstasy.

The Bucks are back.

Milwaukee is winning. Finally.

And that has been a boon to the Bucks’ efforts in the Deer District. Only four years ago, the team was threatening to leave the city where it was born. The Park East corridor was a barren section of Downtown. There’s a reason why the city sold the lot where Fiserv Forum now sits for only one measly buck: Milwaukee wanted to keep its team here.

In its inaugural year, Fiserv Forum had the second-best attendance percentage in the NBA, a far cry from the Bradley Center’s placing 22nd in its final season and 26th each of the three years prior.

After one season in their new house, the Bucks are making big promises – promises far bigger than Giannis’ size 16s.

During the debate over the arena, many said the taxpayers’ $250 million contribution would be worth it if it kept the NBA salaries in Wisconsin and catalyzed $1 billion in investment Downtown.

It was a choice between “investing in a new arena or doing nothing,” Ald. Robert Bauman, who represents the arena site, wrote in summer 2015.

To fufill the contract to receive that $250 million, all the Bucks had to do was build the arena and promise to stay in Milwaukee until 2046. They’ve done that. Everything else that does (or doesn’t) follow will either be bonus or disappointment.

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THE CHAIN-LINK FENCES that surround the parking lots flanking the arena, along with the Bradley Center’s resting place, bear signs with three slogans: “Built to work. Built to play. Built to stay.”

The lots’ current vacancy is partially by design. The team promised not to build until after next summer’s Democratic National Convention, leaving room for demonstrators, an estimated 50,000 attendees and countless TV trucks.

After they leave, the Bucks predict shovels will be in the ground within weeks, laying foundations for the first next building: a glass-paned office building of up to 20 stories. The team is working out details with potential anchor tenants. It’s also fielding offers for multiple hotels and planning for an unspecified number of high-density housing units in the coming years.

Bucks President Peter Feigin brags that his team has “fulfilled everything and anything we said we would ahead of schedule.”

Two years ago, MilMag contributor Zach Brooke told the planned story of Fiserv Forum and Deer District before either of them even had a name.

“We are way ahead of our plans to, in the next two to four years, really kind of complete this district,” he says, “which would be unheard of in modern urban development, to get such a diverse development together in and around an arena.”

The Bucks’ pace is uncommon. With undertakings of this scale, promises are customary. Following through isn’t.

In Detroit, the billionaire Ilitch family, which owns the NHL’s Red Wings and MLB’s Tigers (as well as Little Caesars Pizza), got public aid to help build its $860 million Little Caesars Arena, where the Red Wings and the NBA’s Pistons now play.

The arena went up on schedule, but that’s about it. The Ilitches promised 700 new residential units for the area and five walkable commercial neighborhoods. Instead, they’ve set up dozens of parking facilities and not much else.

“What they have now is your sort of mega-venue and then the moat of parking around it,” says Francis Grunow, a Detroit preservationist and urban planner. “That was not what was sold to the public.”

The Ilitches declined to comment for this story and have provided incredibly little information to Detroiters other than another vague promise: “More is coming.”

The story of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, home to the NHL’s Blue Jackets since 2000, has a cheerier first act, luring $1 billion in private development – matching the Bucks’ goal and providing a proof of concept.

“The notion that sports could be an anchor was an idea that some scoffed at,” Mark Rosentraub, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, told The Columbus Dispatch in 2015. “Now, it’s the bible.” 

But within 15 years, the Blue Jackets were already considering skipping town. They’ve since agreed to stay through 2039, but the county (and thus, taxpayers) had to take ownership of the arena and is now on the hook for tens of millions in repairs in the coming years. Nationwide Insurance shifted its hockey-related priorities, selling the arena and buying 30% of the team instead.

The Blue Jackets continually rank among the bottom in NHL ticket sales and have never been championship contenders. Despite their history as an on-ice powerhouse, the Red Wings haven’t survived the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2013.

The difference here is that the Bucks are winning – on and off the court.

“The accelerant of everything was team success,” Feigin told MilMag in July, after the Bucks were a couple of wins away from a Finals appearance. “The last four to five months has been an incredible shift in interest for us, where developers and people who are interested in investing in Milwaukee are coming on. That wasn’t the case 12 months ago. … It went from us being the hunters to us being the hunted.”

The Bucks’ development has progressed enormously since the plans were first announced more than four years ago.
Punch Bowl Social Milwaukee

Punch Bowl Social’s Milwaukee outpost spans two floors and nearly 25,000 square feet; photo by Lindsey Anderson

IT’S AN UNSEASONABLY HOT Saturday afternoon in July. Dozens of people enjoy a late lunch or an early drink at Punch Bowl Social, one of the first of what the Bucks hope will be many tenants near Fiserv’s shadow. Below Punch Bowl’s balcony, a couple of kids run through a splash pad. A family drinks outside while watching a golf tournament on the big screen. A fanny pack-wearing tourist wanders through the Bucks Pro Shop.

The tourist pulls out his iPhone and video chats with a friend. They’re both speaking Greek. He points the camera toward a wall of Bucks hats – repping his new favorite team.

He wouldn’t be here without the Bucks.

 


Deer District blueprint

 

NINE LOTS MAKE UP THE Milwaukee Bucks’ Deer District. Three are filled, one with Fiserv Forum, a second with the “Live Block” of bars and restaurants to the east, and a third with the team’s training/medical center northwest of the arena.

“We sit and look at the product offering itself: Does it fit with something we’re trying to do?” Justin Green, the team’s vice president of hospitality, says of the Deer District development process. “Is it something we believe has longevity with the overall plan?”

HERE’S WHAT ELSE THE BUCKS HAVE MAPPED OUT:

➥ The 242,500-square-foot office building, planned for north of Fiserv Forum. The hope is that 9-to-5ers from the building would become the patrons that could fill in the offseason slowdown in business.

➥ The Bucks are offering 20,000 combined square feet of retail space underneath an existing parking structure next to the planned office building.

➥ To the northwest, a half-acre triangular lot is available, evidence the team wants to fill in all of the space possible.

➥ Within the “Live Block” hosting Good City Brewing, Punch Bowl Social and the Mecca sports bar and adjacent to the Bucks’ Beer Garden, another 1,000 square feet is available to the right bidder. The team is promoting this site as a “walker’s paradise” right along Old World Third Street.

➥ To the south, two lots remain where the Bradley Center once stood. A hotel or two are possible.

➥ Not much is known about what the Bucks want on what’s called “Block 5” to the northeast, although eventually they hope to see a mixed-use building of anywhere from three to 20 stories there. It could be one of the hotels.

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“Big Bucks” appears in the October 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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