After years of stumping for community support, Milwaukee's rising NBA squad is closing in on completing its new half a billion dollar home. All of a sudden, the city and the professional sports world are cheering them on.
Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin moves through the team’s new practice building as though he’s already moved on from it. It’s three days before the grand opening of the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center, a hybrid gym, rec center, executive war room and community health clinic, and he steps with determination through a slick green and gray underground parking tunnel dubbed the “Bat Cave.” Closing in on the swanky, state-of-the-art players’ lounge, he notes only imperfections: occasional bare corners and stairwells wanting for décor. Then, as he peers from the floor-to-ceiling windows that face the massive steel structure going up across North Sixth Street, his true thoughts come into focus.
“You want pedestrians to see clean, great, inviting views,” he says. “If they’re looking into the arena, you want them to see open concourses and breezeways. You want to see a thoughtful vision from all angles.”
He speaks literally about the new arena’s facade, but he may as well be referencing the political optics. The Bucks’ big build is a billion dollar hub of investment that moves only with the support spokes contributed by a sturdy rim of stakeholders, including state taxpayers. The centerpiece is the arena itself and its accompanying parking garage, a $524 million project. Upfront public financing accounts for 48 percent of the total, a matter that was settled only after years of debate dissolved into brinkmanship. Flanking the structures is another half a billion in investment in the form of two full blocks of TBD development slated to include apartments, retail, offices and entertainment venues.
At the center of it all is Feigin. Acting as the public face of the franchise for billionaire owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, his fingerprints are all over the project, just as his palm prints can be seen on the backs of local pols and business leaders. The New York import has a warm smile that adroitly fails to telegraph what’s really going on behind his dark eyes. He’s a cheerleader of all things Bucks since he joined the franchise three years ago this month.
“Peter is a visionary. When you come to work you want to run through the wall for him,” says Raj Saha, general manager for the still-unnamed arena, who first met Feigin 20 years ago when both worked at Madison Square Garden. “There are a lot of things I’ve done in my career, including an Olympics and a World Cup. Peter is probably the only team president that I would have considered jumping back into the venue game with.”
Now, as the initial arena project designs gel, there’s still a tremendous amount of effort needed to realize Feigin’s holistic vision for the development by the time everything opens in the fall of 2018. Which is what, exactly? “That this is the 30-acre capital and destination for all sports entertainment in the country,” Feigin says.
The earth itself was not ready for the new Bucks arena. To support the weight of the massive structure, 10-ton weights were hoisted 50 feet in the air by crane then released to hurtle toward the supple ground. This was repeated every five feet, forming depressions throughout the site. The dense cavities were topped off and smoothed over with gravel. Only then could construction begin in earnest.
The groundbreaking ceremony took place on June 18, 2016. Fourteen months later the last of the giant trusses needed to hold the ceiling in place were hoisted into position, paving the way for the complete enclosure of the structure and the application of its zinc skin in a wrap-around inverted swoosh pattern. The final 11 months of construction would focus on flourishes: a coliseum’s worth of personal touches. To hear Feigin tell it, the goal is to build a venue so thrilling in and of itself that it will sate the masses regardless of the Bucks’ on-the-court performance any given night. Not that winning is beside the point.
Two blocks long and one block wide, the arena will be more than 700,000 square feet. Its north-to-south orientation runs between West Juneau and West Highland avenues, and from North Fourth to North Sixth streets east to west. Behind its main entrance on the east side is a hundred-foot brick and beige atrium bordered on three sides by the concourse and one side by grass.
The completed arena will seat around 17,500, making it the second smallest facility in the NBA ahead of only the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, and approximately 2,000 seats smaller than the Bucks’ current home in the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Unlike in the Bradley, however, the bulk of the seats make up the lower bowl adjacent to the court.
Big spenders who shell out for the first four rows will enter the building through a special VIP section and have access to a club that connects to the player’s tunnel. Action on the court is estimated to be viewable from 75 percent of the main concourse, a figure closer to modern baseball stadiums than basketball facilities. Fidgety Bucks fans can keep abreast of the action as they flow between assigned seating and anchored bars. Above the nosebleed seats in the northeaster corner, a deck called the Panorama Club stretches toward the stratosphere. One side of the club offers visitors a soaring overview of the court or concert stage, while the opposite edge of the space looks down at the entertainment plaza being built in tandem with the arena. The space is the farthest viewers can stray from the court inside the arena. It will be open to all fans during the game, though its capacity is approximately 500. During the offseason, the Bucks foresee the club being rented for weddings and office parties.
The facility will be among the most accommodating in the NBA, providing seven sensory rooms to anyone who needs a timeout – think autism, PTSD, ADHD, breastfeeding mothers or even surly children. There they can adjust light settings, relax in lounge chairs and use free data to listen to soothing music, or even rub textured walls.
Forty original works of art will dress up the spaces not claimed by sponsorships, building on the legacy of rich artistic heritage that began with Robert Indian’s pop art home court at the MECCA in the 1970s. There are some opportunities for sculptures and murals along the concourses and atrium. A massive 1,120-square-foot mural on the exterior of the building will reflect the spiritual essence of the franchise to the city at-large. A call for submissions by Wisconsin artists was put out at the beginning of August. The organization received more than 400 submissions the first week and by late August had nearly 1,000.
“[Feigin] has a vision,” says Tracie Speca- Ventura, founder of California-based curator Sports & the Arts, which is reviewing commissions for the project, having just finished renovation of the suite level at Lambeau Field. “He keeps saying he wants the best of the best. And with the contemporary architecture, the art is going to be the icing on the cake.”
Most tickets will cost $6 more than they do at the Bradley Center, and $18 more on average for lower bowl seating. However, half of the tickets sold during the team’s 41 regular season home games will be priced under $50, Feigin says, making access a bit more egalitarian. The 34 luxury suites go from $225,000 to $300,000 annually.
The entertainment plaza adjacent to the arena is part of a larger 30-acre site that will transform the northwest side of downtown, a patchwork of low-level lots and bare fields. Previously left for dead after a bid to house Kohl’s corporate headquarters there dissolved, the neglected neighborhood is poised to become one of Milwaukee’s most vibrant areas.
Creating auxiliary people magnets to draw in near-capacity crowds on a regular basis is a high priority. Put simply, more people need to live, work and congregate in the complex in order for it to grow dense enough for the Bucks and their partners to prosper. That requires a wholesale development of the surrounding corridor, stretching from Old World Third Street to MATC’s central campus.
“There aren’t too many Top 50 cities in the country where you can actually develop 30 acres of contiguous land,” Feigin says. “We got this gift and this opportunity to reimagine downtown Milwaukee, which doesn’t happen ever. From the west side of the Milwaukee River, we have this ability to really build a neighborhood.”
Looking north from midcourt, the Sports Science Center stands at 10 o’clock. A new Froedtert health clinic, scheduled to open next month, is housed in the same building. Crossing North Sixth Street at 11 o’clock is the parking structure, connected by skyway to the arena proper. Twelve to two o’clock encompasses a swatch of land earmarked for a mix of commercial and residential buildings. Plans for Park 7 Lofts, a three-sided, six-story 107-unit market-rate apartment building bordering the parking structure, are already greenlit by the city plan commission. Feigin says the total number of living units in the complex could reach four figures, and his dream partner for the space remains a large corporate headquarters employing 1,200 to 1,800 workers next door to the arena.
At three o’clock is Live Block, the name for the Bucks’ entertainment area. It’s an outdoor mall sandwiched between the arena and The Moderne and North Old World Third Street shops and taverns. The strip of North Fourth Street enveloped by the mall will become a pedestrian walkway permanently closed off to vehicles. Bucks’ execs envision a raucous and vibrant public party area complete with an interactive central art installation. On event nights, revelers will be able to gaze into the arena through its enormous glass face. The rest of the time Live Block will play host to a farmer’s market, 5K kickoffs, small scale concerts and 3-on-3 basketball tournaments.
As fast as the Bucks are moving on securing corporate partnerships, many deals remain un-finalized at this point, including naming rights for the arena itself. To close, the Bucks must sell the sponsorships to skeptical business partners eager to visualize a return on investment. Feigin says the team has narrowed potential candidates for arena naming rights down to a few finalists. All but five of the suite packages were sold by mid-August, and this fall, the Bucks will become one of the teams sporting corporate logos on player uniforms. Harley-Davidson will ride with the Bucks for the next three seasons.
The Bucks’ full-court marketing press might strike some as distasteful, but a short glance at history shows that indifference to business considerations may have been a key reason a new arena was needed in the first place.
Thirty-two years ago, a Milwaukee power couple gave the city one hell of a gift. Philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit, daughter of Allen-Bradley co-founder Harry Lynde Bradley, and her sportscaster husband, Lloyd Pettit, promised to fund virtually the entire cost of a new sports entertainment complex. The Bucks, freshly acquired by Herb Kohl, had outgrown their then-current digs at the 11,000-seat MECCA (now UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena) and welcomed the opportunity to move in.
It proved to be more of a roommate situation than a true home. The Bradley Center’s inaugural game was a National Hockey League exhibition between the Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks – an overture to the NHL that this was an arena with a vacancy. The ensuing years revealed that seating layout, square footage, signage, concessions and suite income dispersal and a lack of crowd-pleasing amenities were all out of step with emerging NBA standards.
The Bucks’ team brass began to stump for publicly funded upgrades to the Bradley Center barely a decade after its completion. When assistance failed to materialize by 2004, then-owner Herb Kohl said to forget it. The Bucks’ arena was nearing the end of its useful lifespan as an NBA venue and no amount of renovation could change that.
The point was re-emphasized with greater urgency in 2013 by incoming NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who declared the Bradley Center unfit for an NBA team. Milwaukee was on notice: the Bucks needed a new arena to remain in the city.
Kohl sold the team to the new ownership group a year later, and in a final act of stewardship, pledged $100 million to the building of a new facility. This amount was first matched by the new owners, and then surpassed by $50 million, for a collective investment of $250 million.
But total cost estimates for the new arena reached half a billion dollars. The NBA made it clear it expected public funds to cover the remainder of the arena’s cost. Feigin appeared before the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to warn of the league’s intentions to purchase the Bucks from its new owners and relocate to Las Vegas or Seattle without significant progress by the start of the 2017-18 Bucks’ season. Their hands forced, most legislators lined up with keeping the Bucks, and a bill to commit $250 million in public money for the arena and parking structure was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker the following month. Nearly one-fifth of that amount is coming from the City of Milwaukee, with the rest spread between the county and state governments. The state will own the arena, with the Bucks signed on as operators and tenants for the next 30 years. The team is also responsible for general maintenance, as well as any cost overruns during construction. Government financing is spread out across 20 years, at which time Wisconsin taxpayers will have contributed more than $400 million total to the project, including interest.
That figure makes the agreement less palatable to state Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Democrat who was one of 10 senators to vote against the 2015 financing package, and the only “no” vote within the greater Milwaukee area. Two years later, he says he hasn’t changed his mind.
“There are a couple parts of the funding that when people read about it, they’re going to say it stinks to high heaven,” he says. One item he singled out is the extension of a tax originally enacted to pay for upgrades to the Wisconsin Center that was scheduled to be sunsetted in a few years. Another is an indirect subsidy that came about when the county sold its Park East plot, conservatively valued at $7.5 million, to the team for one dollar.
The sum of these negotiations is an overall bottom line that is less taxpayer-friendly than the initial $250 million, particularly for Milwaukeeans. “If you’re a resident of the city of Milwaukee, you are triple taxed, because you’re paying for the City of Milwaukee’s part, you’re paying for the county’s part and you’re paying for the state’s part,” Carpenter says.
Two years later, as he appraises sightlines of the half-finished arena from the wide windows of the Sports Science Center, Feigin’s local legacy seems intact. He’s the mayor of Buckstown; the champion of the largest construction project in an aspirational city in the middle of a boom. Oh, and the team he heads looks pretty good, too.
“People are overwhelmingly excited about this, which, I’ve got to be honest, was surprising because before anything came up it was like ‘Will they ever get anything built?'” Feigin says.
He’s become a booster of Milwaukee, playing up the psychological effects of developing a world-class arena. An oft-repeated talking point is that the new training center is located at the foot of the off-ramp exiting I-43 and entering downtown via West Fond Du Lac Avenue. Once giving approaching motorists an empty, uninspiring view that made the city seem small and remote, it now presents them with the fearsome Bucks logo dwarfed by the towering new arena.
“What that does for people and their sense of pride and their value of the city is astronomical,” Feigin says.
A rare moment where the kumbaya broke came from Feigen’s comments in September 2016 regarding Milwaukee’s long-festering racial segregation in a speech before the Rotary Club of Madison.
“Very bluntly, Milwaukee is the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he told the Rotarians. He’s been on the defensive ever since, but now focuses less on harsh descriptors and more on how the arena and surrounding development can act as a force for integration.
“I think we’ve got a big advantage for NBA basketball, which by definition is a melting pot. We’re able to design an entire campus that is extremely open and welcoming and it’s certainly our objective to accelerate the building of a vibrant, diverse downtown,” he says.
Assuming Feigin is as good as his word, the Bucks arena may become the public works project that finally moves the needle of the city’s segregation problem. Like any die-hard fan at the beginning of the season, Milwaukee warms itself with that hope. ◆
Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Oct. 18 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.