We Talked to Marty Brooks: The Man at the Center of the Action

The Wisconsin Center District chief discusses DNCs past and present – and his stint working with Donald Trump.

He’s never been a politician, but Marty Brooks sure has a unique insider’s view of the presidential politics of 2020. The Wisconsin Center District president worked with Donald Trump 20 years before the Republican won his bid for the White House. Later, in St. Louis, Brooks helped put together that city’s unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Now he’s involved in preparations for the Democratic Party’s 2020 gathering in Milwaukee, as chief executive officer of the tax-supported body that runs the Wisconsin Center, UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre, and that owns Fiserv Forum.

Milwaukee Magazine talked with Brooks about his past and future presidential ties as well as his leading role on the city’s convention and entertainment scene.

Photo by Sara Stathas

Who is Marty Brooks?

Current job: President and CEO, Wisconsin Center District, since January 2018

Prior jobs: General manager, America’s Center Convention Complex, St. Louis; general manager, Scottrade Center and Peabody Opera House, St. Louis; general manager, Hartford (Conn.) Civic Center; various positions, Madison Square Garden; director of sports programming, USA Network

Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism, University of Maryland-College Park

Family: Wife, Leslie, and two daughters

Hometown: Baltimore

Age: 63

Hobby: Building Lego kits

You have no prior connection to Milwaukee, and a big part of your job is selling people on coming here with their conventions. How do you manage that?

I attribute it more to what Milwaukee is than any special skill set that I have. When I came to Milwaukee, I felt like I was coming home, even though I’d never been here. The people here are so welcoming and so genuine and warm. It’s very easy to tell people why they should come here when it’s just so darn positive.

What other key selling points do you see for Milwaukee?

Easy to get around. The restaurants, bars, entertainment – be it sports, theater or music – there’s a lot to do. There are ways to spend your leisure time that cost money and a lot that will not cost you money: walking around the Third Ward, along the river, along the lakefront. We have culture. We have entertainment and recreation. And we’re convenient to Chicago, to General Mitchell Airport – it’s easy to get here.

You’ve had some interesting prior jobs, particularly as president and executive producer of the Miss Universe pageant. How did you wind up in that position?

I was working for Madison Square Garden. The Garden at that time was owned by Paramount, which also owned the Miss Universe Organization. When my prior boss became president of the Garden, I became president and executive producer of Miss Universe, while maintaining my job responsibilities with MSG Network.

I did that for 3½ years. The last six to eight months of that, the Garden had changed ownership. It was determined by the new owners that Miss Universe was not one of the core businesses they wanted to retain, so they put it up for sale. Ultimately, we sold it to Donald Trump.

And did you have any dealings with him at that time?

A lot of dealings. For four months, I dual reported to the Garden and to Donald Trump. I was in his office a number of times. When he was looking to buy the business in May of ’96, he came to Las Vegas, where we were doing the Miss Universe pageant. He invited me and my wife to fly home with him and [Trump’s then-wife, Marla Maples] on his plane, which was a very fun experience.

So what was he like to deal with in negotiations?
[Long pause.] I loved that job, but it became apparent to me that our styles were very different. We were negotiating for me to stay with the organization, and I think both parties felt that this was not going to jell, so I stayed with the Garden.

Trump said in a 2005 interview with radio host Howard Stern that when he bought the pageant, it was a “sick puppy,” by which he meant that the winners had become less attractive because the pageant was emphasizing brains over beauty.

Donald was very public with a titleholder who was crowned when I was president, Miss Venezuela [Alicia Machado, Miss Universe 1996]. There was a whole issue with him and weight concerns that he had. He was very outspoken about it.

[Editor’s note: Machado said Trump called her “Miss Piggy” and forced her to work out in front of television cameras.] I was very disappointed to hear him speak like that. And that’s one of many examples why it was right for me not to remain with the organization.

He also spoke in that same interview, and a number of contestants spoke publicly, about him walking in on contestants while they were in their dressing rooms.

It didn’t happen when I was there. We put the business up for sale around the time of Miss Universe (1996). We had the Miss Teen (Universe) pageant in August (1996), which he did not attend, and then we sold the business. I never worked a show with him as the owner, so I can’t comment. I don’t know.

How do you view the DNC’s impact on Milwaukee?

To me, the DNC is a transformational event. It is going to bring 50,000 decision-makers and decision-influencers into this city. We have an opportunity to present to them how we are to do business, how we are to live, how we are for recreational purposes. We can take this opportunity with the spotlight on us for the world. You’re bringing people that we would never otherwise have here.

And do you see that translating into specific benefits, like getting more conventions in the future?

Absolutely. The vast majority of people attending this convention have some affiliation either with a professional organization, a school or personal and professional relationships that have them seeking at some point a destination to host a gathering. That means more hotel stays, more flights in and out of the airport, more rental cars, more Uber, more restaurants, more bars, all the support services.

I would expect there to be not only growth in the hospitality industry as a result of the convention, but also in business, as people see the cost of living and variety of home pricing. It makes for a very attractive place for people to live and recruit people to come work. And between UW-Milwaukee and Marquette, you’ve got great educational institutions here, plus the hospital system. That’s what people are looking for: housing and health care.

How were you involved in St. Louis’ 2012 bid for the DNC?

In St. Louis at the time, I was the executive vice president and general manager of the Scottrade Center [now the Enterprise Center], which was the arena being positioned as the main venue for the convention. We were also in the renovation of a 3,100-seat theater, very similar to the High Life Theatre, that was attached to the Scottrade Center.

What do you think made the difference between St. Louis not getting it in 2012 and Milwaukee getting it in 2020?

I’m going to tell you what I think, not what I know. In St. Louis, the 2012 convention was leading into then-President Obama’s second term. For the 2020 convention, there is no Democrat that’s president. So I believe that when the party that’s in power is selecting the site for the convention for a [president’s] second term, the president has an involvement in deciding where the convention goes. I have heard that St. Louis was strongly recommended, but that there was a decision made at a higher level to select Charlotte. I don’t know that.

Milwaukee had its act together. St. Louis had its act together, too. Both great cities. But at the end of the day, the decision is often based on things unrelated to the facilities or the city itself. It could be where the party needs to have a presence where it’s been weak in the past. It’s a lot more than just a new arena. The Scottrade Center was 16 years old at the time. You could rationalize any number of reasons why we did or didn’t get it. The team that presented, in both cases, did great presentations. The financial commitments were there by both cities. Somebody else makes the decision.

With the Fiserv Forum, the Wisconsin Center District is the landlord and pays the mortgage, but you’re not involved in day-to-day operations. How is that working?

From our perspective, it’s working out very well. We have a great relationship with the Bucks and the staff of the Fiserv Forum. Now that they’re in the operation mode, we’re less involved than when they were in the construction mode. They’re doing an excellent job in running (and) booking the building. They’ve brought a lot of people downtown, they’ve brought a lot of attention to Milwaukee, and without the Fiserv Forum, we’re not hosting the DNC in 2020.

When the arena deal was reached, there was concern that it would impair your financial ability to expand the convention center. How have you dealt with that?

 (At first,) the focus was on reaching out to the city, county and state to see to what extent either they would be receptive to providing us with funds for the expansion or if the politicians would be supportive of increasing the hotel tax, food-and-beverage tax and the rental car tax that we use to fund our existing debt.

It became evident that neither the city, county nor state were in a position to fund the expansion on our behalf, nor were we able to find any politicians who embraced the idea of an increase in the hotel, restaurant or rental car tax. It made us focus on: “Can we do this another way? Let’s go to the experts.” Based upon the taxes that we’re currently receiving and the overall financial stability of this organization, the financial institutions have told us, “You have enough borrowing capacity to issue bonds and fund the project.”

Do you see Wisconsin Center naming rights as part of the financing package for repaying those bonds?

It has not been factored in. However, it is very much on our radar to secure a naming-rights partner for the convention center, because of what we believe the value of that naming rights to be. It might not be needed to pay debt service, but it would certainly be another revenue stream.

What do you see as the convention center expansion’s importance to Milwaukee?

I think an expansion to the convention center will contribute to the transformation that the city is taking. It’s a component. It’s not the one thing. The Deer District and the Fiserv Forum is a transformational component. The development of The Hop is a transformational element. The convention center expansion will be a transformational element, because it’s bringing a spotlight to a great city in a great region with a great workforce that people aren’t aware of.

If the city extends The Hop to the Wisconsin Center and Fiserv Forum, what impact do you see that having on the district?

It would be terrific to have The Hop alongside our building. The Hop is a very efficient way of moving people around our city. It’s another amenity that convention planners are looking for so they can put people in hotels that are more than a couple blocks away.

Do you think it matters if the extension gets done by the DNC or not?

I think the extension is terrific whenever it happens. Having it for the DNC would be a terrific amenity. But it’s not the end of the world for The Hop if for whatever reason it were to come in six months after that. It would just be a shame to not have it in place to support the event.

The demolition of the Bradley Center brought the Admirals back to the Arena. How has that been working out?

The Admirals are a great group. I have been involved personally in minor-league hockey for at least 14 years before coming here. I ran the business side of the Hartford Wolf Pack for 11 years and for a couple years in St. Louis, I oversaw the Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen, (now the Utica [N.Y.] Comets, then) owned by the Blues. So I’m familiar with the challenges the (American Hockey League) has. I think the UWM Panther Arena is a terrific venue for their games. AHL attendance is not at the level of an NHL game. And being in the Bradley Center, the ambiance of the event is lost a little bit when you’re in a 17,000-seat building and you have 5,000 people in it. Having 5,000 people in our building is a great crowd. The fan experience in the UWM Panther Arena is, I think, spot-on for their type of product.

The Miller High Life Theatre has had its ups and downs. How is it doing now and how do you see it in the future?

I’d like to see it busier, and we’re working diligently to increase the event activity. The challenge is adding events that are profitable, as opposed to just adding events. It’s a very competitive entertainment market, but one I feel we can certainly participate in. We’ve had some real successes in that building. We had two great back-to-back nights earlier this year: We had Michele Obama on a Thursday night, sold out, and the next night, we had Mariah Carey. sold out. Those events don’t play the market if our building isn’t there. We have a larger capacity than anything comparable.

What do you see as the future for the Wisconsin Center District?

I see a convention center that carries the tremendous economic growth in downtown Milwaukee and the entire region by being able to accommodate more conventions, which brings in more hotel room nights and more activity in restaurants and bars. What really has been a focus of ours was to change the culture of our staff here. This was an organization that had been around for 20-plus years and, from my observation, was not run like an entertainment entity. It was run more like a government agency that was not attuned to the industry that we’re in. Working with a team, I came up with a CEO vision, a mantra that I thoroughly wear: “Be bold, be proud, be experience-obsessed.” It’s just a different way than we had been doing business.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.