No help on its way

Marc Lasry and Wes Edens have no interest in helping the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Marquette doesn’t care about the future of the Milwaukee Panthers. And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will not lift a finger for the benefit of the city’s public Division I university. Harsh words, to be sure. But these words need to be understood by the full UWM community, and they need to be understood now. Like right now.

This doesn’t mean there’s any ill intent. Lasry and Edens don’t dislike the university. Marquette doesn’t actively think about screwing over UWM. The Journal Sentinel even covers the Panthers and the university at large. It just means that helping the Panthers isn’t on anybody’s To-Do list. Once we all get that, we can move forward.

For those who are unaware, the Milwaukee Bucks’ principal owners are in talks to purchase the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s land holdings on the corner of 4th and State. Buying this would give them pretty much everything between 4th and 3rd streets and State and Kilbourn. That space alone is not large enough to house the new basketball arena, and expanding east over 3rd street is unlikely due to the Historical Society and Pere Marquette Park being on the other side.

This leaves expanding west, over 4th street, to the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. According to sources, their plan involves tearing down the Journal and Sentinel buildings, the Arena and the Milwaukee Theater – and eventually the BMO Harris Bradley Center once the new stadium is up – to build a mixed-use space involving retail, restaurants and housing around the new Bucks stadium. It’s been mentioned that they’d also like to put in a practice facility, which is a likely result since the Bucks have long wished to leave the Cousins Center in St. Francis.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a huge economic interest in the space used by the arena. Should things move forward, they can deposit a check from Lasry and Edens and move their offices elsewhere, perhaps to West Milwaukee with their print facility. If the new Bucks arena happens elsewhere, Journal Communications faces a much tougher sell to developers who may not want to develop on land where they’d have to take care of a century’s worth of toxic ink underneath the old printing presses before any lasting development could occur.

Marquette’s new leader, Michael Lovell, is playing for a different team now. Mike wants his two most recent employers to cooperate, collaborate and complement each other. But his university’s basketball team is paramount to its success – it’s no secret that the financial health of Marquette University is tied specifically to the success of its men’s basketball program. He’s going to go where Lasry and Edens point. Fans of Marquette may not have the Panthers on the mind, but knocking the city’s other D-I team out of downtown would be taken as an added bonus by MU’s inner circle.

So here we stand. The Panthers, months removed from a sizable investment in the Arena as their present and future home, are on the outside looking in on the conversation as to where the new Bucks arena should go.

The other side is organized. Marquette sits on the sidelines, ready and willing to write the check that secures their future home inside the new arena. Lasry and Edens are busy lobbying politicians and donors for the rest of the cash needed to build the arena, while their new President Peter Feigin stiff-arms the university, keeping the leadership from getting in on the discussion for real.

Their financial future is so tied to the Journal/Arena site that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has represented other sites as poor or lesser than what they could be and ran stories on the Milwaukee Theater’s failures just to keep people focused on their space as the best possible spot for the new Bucks stadium. They scoffed at the possibility of the Grand Avenue Mall’s west end, pointing out that the space between 5th street, Wisconsin Avenue, the Grand Avenue Mall and Michigan Street is too small for a new arena, completely ignoring the fact that across Michigan Street is more space for expansion with the vacant former office building for Blue Cross Blue Shield and Zeidler Square, a small park that could be gotten easily. They also have been dismissive of the fact that the Bucks already own the space directly north of the Bradley Center and could easily build a stadium and development around it, finishing it off with the demolition of the Bradley Center to make way for even more development. The city could even help make that happen by influencing the tax code around it.

All parties involved have not admitted that perhaps the last and best opportunity to develop the Park East corridor is to have a new Bucks arena adjacent or smack dab in the middle of it. We’ve heard the half-hearted cry that the soil isn’t conducive to building a stadium – yet the only thing you can find online is this Master Plan (page 14) that states the contaminated soil could not be used as clean fill if the land is excavated. The exclamations that this would be a deterrent in any way fly in the face of the fact that the Journal building has decades worth of toxic ink soaked into the land.

There’s an equitable solution here. We all want to see the Bucks get a new arena, especially when a wide majority of the cost comes from private pockets. We want to see everyone succeed here – the Bucks, Marquette, the Panthers, Admirals, Wave – success across the board is something we all want to see. But the powers that be aren’t looking for an equitable solution, so it’s up to the university to force their hand into keeping everyone happy.

I don’t know what that means. If it means the Arena comes down, so be it. But there’s no interest from other parties to help UWM find a permanent home, so it’s up to us to force the discussion, to change the narrative. This new arena proposal could be a brilliant home, but they’d be putting us on the street and that doesn’t sit well with me, it doesn’t sit well with athletics, it doesn’t sit well with the Wisconsin Center District, and it shouldn’t sit well with the entire UWM community.

This is about so much more than basketball. Losing the Bucks would make the city of Milwaukee a one-pro-team town, and it would lose that status. Conversely, if the university loses this home, not only do they lose footing downtown, but a prolonged time period of playing in the Klotsche Center could be the end of the university as a Division I program, and with it a similar drop in stature as a national university. With studies showing that the university could only raise about $8 million of what would need to be as much as $60 million or more to build a satisfactory replacement to the Arena, everything is quite literally on the line.

So the UWM community needs to come together. We need to circle the wagons around the Panther Arena, because the future of the university is most definitely at stake. Everyone – from Chapman Hall on down to the freshmen in their English 101 class, from the chancellor’s office to 140,000 alumni – needs to pull together and defend our future, just as we did when Innovation Park was under fire because of some butterflies.

We all want the Bucks to have their stadium. But that can’t be at the expense of our beautiful, venerable home. They can build in any number of places. Why does it have to involve cutting down our house?

The Bucks, Marquette and the Journal Sentinel are only representing their own interests. It’s time for us as a community to do the same.


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