The Bucks, Milwaukee, an Arena, and Ambition

Now that plans for a new arena district have been unveiled, just what exactly will we do with them?

They walked into the BMO Harris Bradley Center Wednesday night, had their tickets scanned, and picked up one of the free Fear the Deer posters. Many folks headed right to their seats. But plenty lingered in the arena’s west atrium for a while. The family of four with two kids. The perhaps-retired couple. The two mid-20s buddies in Milwaukee Bucks jerseys. The two women wearing their 30s or 40s well.

What caught their eyes were the three tripods standing between the ticket-takers and the stage where a band called In The Know played their pregame tunes. Or rather, what the tripods displayed: large artist’s renderings of the new Downtown arena and entertainment district, unveiled by Bucks officials in that very atrium earlier in the day.

The new arrivals crowded up close to the new imaginings, pointing to this detail here or that one up there. They stood back to take pictures with their smartphones. The two women regarded the renderings with arms crossed, as if perusing the Milwaukee Art Museum’s O’Keeffes. Off to the side, In The Know played The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” And, when everyone’s look-sees were done, and they turned to go find their seats, they usually did so with smiles, even if a few mumbled a few words about money.

For so many years, so many folks have asked for increased ambition from the Milwaukee Bucks. And now, on this night, so many folks saw renderings of just that.

Nothing about this new arena plan is half-hearted, and it is just an “arena” plan like Lambeau is just a field. Should the billion-dollar enterprise come to fruition – half of that money going toward the arena proper, half toward surrounding it with residential and entertainment developments – it will do nothing less than transform the very feel of Downtown Milwaukee. It seems destined to create a dividing line in the city’s history, a place folks once knew before the construction, a different entity they lived in afterward.

If that sounds like hyperbole, look around Milwaukee today and point to a section of town offering all that’s envisioned by the new arena district. Sure, some corners of town check off some of the boxes – the Summerfest grounds, Water Street, the Menomonee Valley – but none can provide the whole catalytic package. Look around the history of Milwaukee and find another development to rival it. Such things just don’t happen here on that scale.

Of course, it’s all just pictures on cardboard right now, albeit quite attractive pictures crafted with quite a future in mind. Browse through the renderings and see what catches your eye. The arena’s striking glass exterior or wavelike roofline. The easy walk to the Milwaukee River, or the easy drive to I-94. Bango in front of an outdoor beer garden. That same outdoor plaza’s giant video board, positioning it as a grand viewing venue for grand sporting events. The towers sprouting up to encircle everything.

It’s all big and audacious and just the type of thing that blossoming cities do in their metro areas. The Populous folks who spearheaded its design also did the new Yankee Stadium and the new arena in Orlando, Fla. Here, on the drawing board, is Milwaukee’s next Calatrava.

Assuming, of course, the check is written. Assuming enough people here agree with the vision, enough power-brokers agree to shed Milwaukee’s long-cautious skin for bolder trappings.

We are a city with many needs, many of which are more important than sports and entertainment. We should also be a city and state that can figure out how to meet all of those needs. We’ve got smart folks around these parts, and here’s an opportunity that calls for them to be smart together. And if we decline it this time, why would anyone else offer such an opportunity again?

If you want to attract investors, you’ve got to first invest in yourself. Here is something that will change the way folks view Milwaukee, and even how Milwaukeeans view themselves.

We just have to show some more ambition.




Howie Magner is a former managing editor of Milwaukee Magazine who often writes about sports for the magazine.