Even while the Mitchell Park Domes were falling into disrepair, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele was moving forward with a plan to have the county put $80 million toward a new Bucks arena.
As Abele works to win re-election next month, his opponent — state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee — was accusing him of having his priorities out of order. Larson spoke Monday near where Milwaukee’s 4th Street meets Juneau Avenue, next to vacant land set aside for Bucks-related developments.
“Overall, it’s a clear contrast,” Larson said. “I think the domes would be a better investment, and that there is a more widespread public support” for repairing the domes than for financing the construction of a new Bucks arena.
The Mitchell Park Domes have been closed since February after engineers spotted fallen concrete inside one of them. In the year before that revelation, Abele and other local officials had spent much of their time rallying support for the proposed $500 million Bucks arena.
Yet Larson, although he may be criticizing Abele’s arena plans now, was nonetheless among the state lawmakers who voted in favor of a bill calling for $250 million in public money to help finance the construction of the arena. Larson on Monday defended his support for the project, saying he helped make the deal better for taxpayers. He also said he did not have the authority to stop Abele from selling to the Bucks developers land needed for projects related to the new arena.
Under a financing plan passed last year, Milwaukee County will be responsible for paying off $55 million worth of the bonds that will be used to finance the public’s part of the project. That cost is expected to eventually come to $80 million once interest is taken into account.
A question mark, meanwhile, hangs over the domes’ future. Abele’s office has released estimates suggesting full repairs could cost between $65 and $75 million.
Abele, in an email statement, questioned the grounds for comparing the possible dome repairs with the arena deal. He said he can only see one way that the two are related.
“When we have to come up with the $4 million per year that the legislature negotiated and voted for there is less money available to spend on other County assets and services,” he said in the statement.
Abele’s office defended the Park East land sale by contending the redevelopment will generate “hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue,” in addition to creating jobs and revitalizing Milwaukee’s downtown. The Park East site had sat vacant for decades before the sale.
Abele on Feb. 22 put forward a $1 million spending plan that would have short-term repairs made to the domes. The proposal calls for the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to add $500,000 to a previously approved capital project. Money will go to both essential repairs and long-term plans for the three structures.
Upon announcing the spending plan, Abele said the repairs should allow the Show Dome, the most used of the three buildings, to reopen by May 1.
Milwaukee County Parks Department officials hope to have the remaining two domes up and running by the end of the year.
Abele has also said he is open to tearing down the domes if that is what Milwaukee County residents want.
As for the proposed Bucks arena, Abele, in his contribution to the deal, oversaw the sale of 10 acres of county land known as Park East to Bucks developers for $1. He also supported a proposal by state lawmakers that, if it hadn’t eventually been abandoned, would have allowed him to take the county’s debt-collection responsibilities and turn them over to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. Money collected from the state would have helped pay for the county’s contribution to the project.
The proposal has since been revived as its own piece of legislation, which was passed by the state Assembly last month. It is now among the bills the state Senate could take up at a floor session schedule for March 15. If approved then, it would only need Gov. Scott Walker’s signature to become law.
Progress has already been made on various arena-related developments. Team officials revealed in early February that Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons would be in charge of the construction of a nearby practice building. On March 1, the Bucks also announced that J.H. Findorff & Son, of Madison, will serve as project manager of a related parking structure.