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Milwaukee Brewers stadium deal passes committee vote, local contribution lowered

Governor, mayor on board with changes

American Family Field
American Family Field in 2022. Evan Casey/WPR

A deal to fund renovations at American Family Field and ensure the Milwaukee Brewers stay in the city until 2050 cleared a state Assembly committee Thursday, setting up a vote by the full Assembly early next week.

In September, Wisconsin Republicans announced a plan to pay for renovations and maintenance at the stadium, which opened in 2001. Wisconsin’s Committee on State Affairs passed the latest version of that proposal Thursday, including an amendment that lowers the local contribution amount for the deal.

It now has support from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, as well as from Milwaukee’s mayor and county executive.

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Wisconsin Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, was worried that local taxpayers would be paying too much for the renovations, after the original proposal called for $5 million from the county and $2.5 million from the city in annual payments for the next 27 years.

But the county would be required to pay $2.5 million under the latest version of the bill, or half of what was originally required. And the city would be allowed to pay for its share of the annual payments by redirecting a state administrative fee on a new local sales tax passed earlier this year.

“I said from the start, if there was not a fix on the Milwaukee issue I could not support this bill,” Rep. Sinicki said. “I am very pleased with the amendment.”

How much will maintenance cost?

The deal now includes $546 million in public dollars for the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District. That district is charged with the oversight and monitoring of the operations and maintenance of American Family Field, including the trademark retractable roof and the stadium’s video board.

The Brewers would contribute around $100 million, while the majority of state funds would come from income taxes, including from Brewers players and employees, as well as from visiting players. Part of the plan includes winterizing the stadium, so it can be used for events in colder months.

In a statement, Britt Cudaback, communications director for Gov. Evers, said the governor supports the proposal and “appreciates the broad, bipartisan effort toward reaching a compromise that ensures the Milwaukee Brewers and Major League Baseball remain in Wisconsin for future generations.”

State Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, said the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District needs more money. Some have expressed concerns that the Brewers could leave Milwaukee after its lease with the stadium expires in 2030 if no public or state funding for improvements come through, even as Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio recently said he’s “never considered going anywhere else.”

Increasing government support

Meanwhile, local officials and residents have voiced strong opposition to spending local tax dollars on the deal as they’re facing future budget deficits in the coming years. But after the vote, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said the deal now has his “full support.”

“From the outset, I have stated two priorities: I want the Brewers to be our home team for the indefinite future, and I want local taxpayers to be protected from excessive costs,” Johnson said in a statement. “The proposal shared today achieves those objectives, and it has my full support.”

Even so, Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, said she still wants to see a better deal for taxpayers.

“This is a public investment, and the return can be greater for the public — not just Milwaukee County — but for the rest of the state and for those taxpayers who may or may not want to see their tax dollars go to a stadium,” Hong said Thursday.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley also said he’s happy that progress has been made, but he’s still looking forward to “continued negotiations over the coming weeks.”

A 2020 report from Conventions, Sports and Leisure International found the Brewers paid about $106.8 million in upgrades to maintain the stadium since its creation. They’ve also paid about $20 million in rent to the stadium district since 2001. That report also found that from 2001 to 2019, the stadium created $2.5 billion in total output for the state, including $1.6 billion in direct spending and $263 in new taxes.

The team is valued at $1.6 billon, according to Forbes. Despite having one of the smallest markets, the Brewers ranked 15 out of 30 Major League Baseball teams in attendance last season, averaging just over 31,000 fans per game.

Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Brewers, said in a statement Thursday that the team appreciated the ongoing work from policymakers on both sides of the aisle.

“We will continue to work with everyone involved on a bipartisan solution, and look forward to being able to negotiate a long-term lease extension to keep Brewers baseball in Wisconsin for the next generation,” Schlesinger said.

The 1995 Brewers deal to construct Miller Park authorized government bonding, or borrowing, to pay for construction of the stadium. Borrowing for the project totaled more than $259 million, according to a 2019 memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Taxpayers in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha and Racine counties paid an extra 0.1 percent sales tax to retire that debt and the associated interest. Evers signed a law in 2019 requiring the local sales tax to expire in 2020.

The full Assembly is scheduled to vote on the latest Brewers deal Tuesday.