Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee
The idea of creating an entertainment district near the Milwaukee Brewers ballpark has been broached since before the new stadium was built. As part of a deal where the CMC company traded land it owned in the Menomonee Valley to be used for the stadium in return for land owned by the state, the Brewers were prohibited from doing other development near the stadium.
This prohibition was included in the state deal funding the new stadium in order to prevent the Brewers from undercutting CMC, which envisioned a movie theater or other entertainment getting developed in the valley. But CMC never built anything and later sold the land. And the prohibition on the Brewers developing on the 265 acres of state land it uses for the stadium and parking lots ended in April 2011.
It was sometime after this that Mayor Tom Barrett and then chief of staff Patrick Curley were asked to meet with Brewers officials, as Curley recalls: “There was a discussion about the Brewers building a hotel and a theme park, they floated a ‘what if’ scenario.”
Barrett wasn’t clear what the Brewers were asking for, but explained the city couldn’t help financially, Curley recalls, because it didn’t create TIF (tax incremental financing) districts for hotels, and there would be no way to repay the TIF since the Brewers’ land was exempt from property taxes (taxes on a development’s increase in property value are used to pay off a TIF). “You could tax the improvements,” Curley noted, but he wasn’t sure how that would work.
Anyway, “the idea went no further than that,” Curley says and the team never broached the subject again, though there was nothing in their lease to stop them doing such a development.
The idea resurfaced again in October 2018, in a BizTimes editorial by Andrew Weiland, who suggested there was an opportunity for an entertainment district now that Komatsu Mining planned to abandon its 44-acre complex at 4400 W. National Ave. in West Milwaukee, and near the Brewers stadium, to a new location in Milwaukee’ Harbor District. “Imagine a mixed-use development district along the east side of Miller Park Way between West National Avenue and I-94, visible from inside the ballpark, with bars, restaurants, retail, hotel, residences, office space and baseball-related entertainment (such as a batting cage). It would be a cool addition to the area and the Brewer game experience,” Weiland wrote.
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee
It could be modeled on the Green Bay Packers Titletown District, Wrigley Field or the Atlanta Braves mixed-use development district called The Battery Atlanta, which Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called the “model for future ballparks,” Weiland noted.
But there was no sign the Brewers had any interest in this.
A year later, in November 2019, the Business Journal did an editorial pushing the idea, noting that “West Milwaukee officials see the long-term opportunity to convert” the Komatsu site “into a year-round entertainment and hotel destination for people visiting the stadium,” and had created a “comprehensive 20-year plan for a ‘unique social experience’ with entertainment options, food and hotels. It could have bike connections to the Hank Aaron State Trail. The plan even suggests the Milwaukee Brewers could participate in the redevelopment.”
The editorial cited the success of such districts in other cities as well as for the Milwaukee Bucks’ Deer District. “The development would also be a great extension of the successful redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley, which has seen a major surge of projects over the past two decades, with the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, Harley-Davidson Museum and several micro breweries and restaurants,” the editorial noted.
What’s come of that plan? Two months ago I interviewed Village of West Milwaukee President John Stalewski about this, and he said “nothing is moving on that. Komatsu is still doing manufacturing at its old site in West Milwaukee. We don’t know what the timetable is for the company.”
Did the Brewers have any interest in the idea? Stalewski said West Milwaukee officials had had no discussions with team officials about this. He added that if the village did do a development it might have “some entertainment element” but would be nothing like the Deer District.
By then it was clear the Milwaukee Brewers would be seeking an additional public subsidy of some kind to support its stadium through 2040, as Urban Milwaukee reported. Is it possible after all these years that the team might envision a subsidy for some kind of entertainment district? I checked with a source close to the team, who told me this: “I have never heard that idea, in any form from the team and I think I would have by now. If the Brewers wanted to do some type of ‘entertainment district,’ it would be in their purview and on their nickel, similar to what the Bucks did.”
But somehow the idea continues to resurface. In March a Mt. Pleasant planning official and Milwaukee resident Robin Palm wrote a post declaring that “The Brewers need a ‘Beer District.’ Much like the Deer District, this would be a large entertainment, commercial, and mixed-use area around American Family Field.” Palm suggested using both a TIF and and Business Improvement District to help pay for this development, without explaining how exactly this would work on land that is property tax exempt and when the main business in the BID would be the Brewers.
Palm did the column for Dan Shafer’s Recombobulation Area website and both Palm and Shafer live in Milwaukee’s Washington Heights neighborhood, most of which is part of the district of Sup. Peter Burgelis, newly elected to the county board in April. Burgelis liked the idea so much that he offered a proposal to the board last week that calls for officials in Milwaukee and West Milwaukee to work on a study with the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District to create a Brewers entertainment district.
Did Burgelis consult with the baseball district before offering this proposal? No, he told Urban Milwaukee. Did he talk to the Brewers? No, he said. Nor was he aware the Brewers pay no property taxes on its parking lots which he proposed to use for something like a TIF development. But his proposal was enough to generate a story by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Daykin, with a headline saying the district “could bring cash to help finance the ballpark’s upgrades.”
That in turn generated stories by Fox 6, WUWM and the Business Journal on the idea.
Perhaps there is some way to create an entertainment district that would work. But if the idea is so good, if it can raise cash for the team, why have the Brewers never moved on it over the last 11 years? Is the team so clueless about its business that it needed a suggestion by a newly-elected supervisor to move on the idea?
Brewers Executive Rick Schlesinger was diplomatic about the idea, noting “the parking lots mean a lot to our tailgaters” and is a big part of the baseball experience for Milwaukee fans. He added that it was “premature” for the team “to opine on substance of any specific proposals,” as the Business Journal reported.
Given the huge and still growing Deer District just a few miles from the Brewers stadium, is there enough potential spending by sports fans to support two such districts? Sports economists have written countless studies finding that sports stadiums and arenas do not have an economic spinoff, but simply transfer dollars that would have been spent on other kinds of leisure and entertainment. Behind the proposal by Burgelis is the myth that a public subsidy for a sports entertainment district will be reimbursed to taxpayers through that miraculous economic spinoff.
But for Brewers’ owners, who are trying to build support for another public subsidy, all this discussion about raising cash for the team has to be music to their ears. “It’s not surprising that people are coming up with some ideas,” Schlesinger said. “Let the ideation present itself.”
And right now that’s all that the entertainment district is, an “ideation” that’s been floating around for nearly a decade.