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Future of Brewers in Milwaukee: Lawmakers reveal new funding plan to keep team through 2050

Republican lawmakers including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos revealed a new plan to keep the Milwaukee Brewers in Wisconsin at American Family Field.
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Posted at 10:27 AM, Sep 18, 2023

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Republican legislators announced a bill Monday that would devote more than $614 million in public funding to repair and renovate the Milwaukee Brewers' stadium — far more than taxpayers spent to build it more than two decades ago.

Watch their press conference:

Lawmakers reveal ballpark plan

Under the proposal, the state would give the team $60.8 million next fiscal year and up to $20 million each year after that through 2045-46. The city of Milwaukee would contribute a total of $202 million and Milwaukee County would kick in $135 million by 2050.

The team would contribute about $100 million and extend its lease at American Family Field through 2050, keeping major league baseball in its smallest market for another 27 years.

“It’s a win for Wisconsin,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said at a news conference at American Family Field.

Seeking to justify the public spending, Vos said losing the Brewers to another city would cost the state and local economies tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue each year, which could lead to diminished state aid for communities around Wisconsin.

Baseball operations at American Family Field generate enough tax revenue that lawmakers can afford to give the team money without imposing any new taxes, Vos said.

At a press conference later in the day, Rick Schlesinger, the team’s president of business operations, said he was glad there's been bi-partisan interest in the club, after plans proposed both by Governor Ever's and now Republican lawmakers.

"What's on the table right now is a good piece of legislation, but we fully expect and understand there's going to be changes and revisions," said Schlesinger. "Since I've been dealing with this for many, many years, if you told me it was getting passed tomorrow in its current form, I would be happy."

The proposal would have to pass the Republican-controlled state Assembly and state Senate and get Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ signature before it could become law. Evers’ office issued a statement Monday saying he looked forward to reviewing the proposal.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, a Democrat, said the proposal would put too much of a burden on the city. Since city residents are Milwaukee County residents as well, they’re being asked to pay twice, he said. He also complained that that the bill removes the mayor’s appointment to the stadium district board.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Greta Neubauer issued a statement echoing Johnson, saying the bill asks too much of the city and the county.

Senate Democratic Causus Leader Chris Larson said the legislation is not good for the people of Wisconsin.

"I don't think it's a good idea for taxpayers to give money to a private business that's extremely profitable. I think it sets a bad precedent. There's a lot of team owners who do like to pretend they're going to leave and flirt with that idea in an effort to extort hundred of millions of dollars from taxpayers," said Larson.

Reports commissioned by the Brewers and another by a state consultant found the stadium’s glass outfield doors, seats and concourses should be replaced, its luxury suites and technology such as its sound system and video scoreboard need upgrades, and its signature retractable roof needs repairs. Fire suppression systems, parking lots, elevators and escalators need work, too.

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo attached to the legislation, baseball operations at the stadium currently generate about $19.8 million annually in state and local taxes. That figure is expected to grow to $50.7 million annually by 2050, according to the memo.

Public funding for professional sports facilities is always a hotly debated issue.

The team's principal owner, Mark Attanasio, has an estimated net worth of $700 million, according to Yahoo Finance. The team itself is valued at around $1.6 billion, according to Forbes. Still, the Brewers have been working for months to secure public funding for stadium repairs and upgrades.

Evers proposed giving the team almost $300 million in the state budget in exchange for the team extending its lease by 13 years, to 2043. Evers would have pulled the money from the state's $7 billion surplus, but Republican lawmakers killed the plan after Vos said he wanted a longer lease extension.

The stadium opened in 2001 as Miller Park and replaced aging County Stadium. Construction cost about $392 million and was funded largely through a 0.1% sales tax imposed in Milwaukee County and the four other counties that surround the stadium.

Construction got off to a tough start. The tax was a lightning rod for criticism; Republican state Sen. George Petak was recalled from office in 1996 after he switched his vote from no to yes on the tax plan. And three construction workers were killed at the stadium in 1999 when a crane collapsed.

But the park ultimately got built. Known for its distinctive fantail retractable roof, the stadium became a destination for Wisconsin baseball fans as the Brewers experienced a resurgence in the late 2000s, advancing to their first playoff appearance in 26 years in 2008. The team has made five other trips to the playoffs since then, including two appearances in the National League Championship Series. The Brewers currently lead the NL Central by 6 ½ games as they pursue their fifth playoff appearance in the last six years.

The five-county sales tax generated about $605 million before it expired in 2020. The stadium name changed to American Family Field in 2021 after the Brewers struck a 15-year naming rights deal with the insurance company.

The Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District essentially serves as the Brewers’ landlord at the stadium. The Brewers’ lease calls for the district to cover repairs, but Evers’ office and the Brewers said in February that the end of the sales tax has left the district short of funds.

The package introduced Monday would create provisions for the state to loan the district up to $50 million for stadium repairs.

The Milwaukee Brewers released a statement on Monday regarding the proposal:

Following the introduction of new legislation in the state Legislature to ensure the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District has the funds necessary to meet its current lease obligations to maintain the longevity of American Family Field, Rick Schlesinger, President of Business Operations for the Milwaukee Brewers, released the following statement:

“The Brewers have said all along that it will take creative, bipartisan solutions to keep Major League Baseball in Wisconsin for the next generation. Today’s proposal from Republicans in the legislature, along with an earlier plan by Governor Evers, shows that there is true consensus across party lines for a solution to extend the life of American Family Field.

“With a $2.5 billion statewide economic impact that supports thousands of jobs, maintaining a first-rate ballpark is crucial for the Brewers to compete and Major League Baseball to remain viable in Wisconsin. It is important that we build on this momentum and focus on a plan that keeps America’s favorite pastime here in Wisconsin.

“We oppose the return of the five-county tax, and we are prepared to commit to a generational lease extension for the Brewers to remain at American Family Field.”

Owned primarily by the Stadium District, American Family Field’s sole tenant – and only reason for the facility’s existence – is the Milwaukee Brewers. Under the team’s lease agreement with the Stadium District, the District is responsible for all major capital repairs and necessary improvements – including those required for legal or Major League Baseball (MLB) compliance. Recently it has been determined that the District will require additional funds to honor its lease obligations to the Brewers, or future obligations like them.

Since opening its doors in 2001, the ballpark has contributed $2.5 billion in direct statewide impact, according to a study released [brewers.us11.list-manage.com] by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, contributes $16.8 million annually in net new tax revenue to the state, and supported 3,000 jobs in 2022 alone. As the smallest market as defined by the MLB, Milwaukee requires a premier ballpark to drive ticket sales and remain economically viable in keeping a professional baseball team in Wisconsin – making maintenance of the ballpark all the more critical.
 

The office of Gov. Tony Evers issued the following statement regarding the Brewers:

While it’s good to hear Republicans are getting serious about keeping Major League Baseball in Wisconsin, it’s unfortunate Republicans rejected Gov. Evers’ commonsense proposal that ultimately would’ve saved taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run.

Gov. Evers looks forward to reviewing Republicans’ proposal and continuing conversations on a plan that provides additional flexibility and minimizes harm for local partners while ensuring we keep this important economic driver and thousands of jobs in our state.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley issued a statement regarding the Brewers:

“The Milwaukee Brewers are an important asset for our community. While I have yet to see the proposed legislation announced today, I look forward to discussions with partners in the Wisconsin State Legislature and I am willing to work with them to find a common ground, bipartisan solution. However, it is important to recognize Milwaukee County is still facing a significant fiscal deficit over the next several years.  Any new proposal by the State of Wisconsin must recognize that reality.  I look forward to discussions with our State partners to identify a path forward that allows Milwaukee and the state to retain the Brewers, while providing Milwaukee County the resources to support our residents and communities in the years ahead.


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