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Taxpayers could spend $600 million on American Family Field. Brewers would stay until 2050


A plan unveiled Monday would spend around $600 million of state and local cash on American Family Field’s renovations over nearly 30 years, with the Milwaukee Brewers pledging $100 million.

It would need approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, as well as their counterparts in Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee − where several elected officials are opposed to local stadium spending. That raises the possibility of additional negotiations before a final deal is reached.

At stake is whether the Brewers will stay in Milwaukee after the team’s lease of the publicly owned stadium expires at the end of 2030, said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

The legislation amounts to “an opportunity for us to keep Major League Baseball in Wisconsin,” Vos said at a ballpark news conference.

If the team leaves, he said, the public would own an empty stadium − and the state income tax revenue tied to the ball club goes away, said Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, who co-authored the legislation.

“It’s cheaper to keep them,” Brooks said at the news conference.

Gov. Evers promises to review proposal

Evers’ office issued a statement criticizing the Republicans for rejecting his stadium funding plan while also saying “it’s good to hear Republicans are getting serious about keeping Major League Baseball in Wisconsin.”

“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,” it said.

The proposal, unveiled by Vos and other Republican legislators, requires the ball club to extend its lease through the end of 2050 − with the business also signing a non-relocation agreement.

Under the lease, the stadium’s major capital improvements, including renovations keeping it on par with upgraded facilities used within at least 75% of all MLB stadiums, are largely the responsibility of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District. That state-created district is the primary owner of American Family Field, which opened in 2001.

The upgrades under the Republican proposal include winterizing the ballpark so it can be used for concerts and other events during the off-season, Brooks said.

The team generates around $20 million in annual state income and sales tax revenue, totaling more than $500 million from 2024 through 2050.

Evers in February proposed in his 2023-’25 state budget a $290 million payment to help finance stadium renovations totaling nearly $450 million. That would have been combined with public funds already set aside by the stadium district as well as interest earnings.

In return, the Brewers lease would have been extended through 2043.

Evers plan ran into GOP opposition

Evers’ proposal ran into legislative opposition, with Vos and other Republicans saying the plan should include money from Milwaukee County and City of Milwaukee. Legislators from both sides of the aisle also said the Brewers should help pay for the renovations.

The Republican plan calls for the state to spend around $411 million through 2046. After an initial $60.8 million payment to the stadium district those annual payments would be capped at $20 million, according to the legislation.

Another $50 million would be available through short-term loans by the state to the stadium district through 2045.

More: How does the Brewers public-funding deal compare to other professional sports teams?

Most of the state money would come from income taxes on Brewers’ employees, including players, and on visiting team players. Those payments would go directly to the stadium district, said Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, a legislation co-author.

Milwaukee County and City of Milwaukee would together pay $7.5 million annually, totaling around $200 million. The proposal calls for $5 million in yearly county payments and $2.5 million city payments.

“They have the most to benefit by having professional baseball in their community,” Feyen said. Meanwhile, the state sales revenue generated by the Brewers benefits all Wisconsin communities, he said.

The Brewers, owned primarily by multi-millionaire investor Mark Attanasio, would spend $100 million.

That $100 million compares to around $40 million the Brewers would be required to provide in stadium rent and renovations fund payments through 2050 if the current lease was extended without changes, said Rick Schlesinger, Brewers president of business operations.

The Brewers decision to spend that additional money was the result of facing political realities as well as a desire to be a good partner with the community, Schlesinger said.

The spending plan amounts to the stadium district meeting its contract obligations and is not a bailout, he said.

There’s some urgency to passing the proposal, said Vos, who’s planning an October vote in the Assembly.

He and Brooks said the stadium district renovations fund, previously estimated at $70 million, actually amounts to around $10 million to $15 million. That could lead the stadium district to default on its lease obligations by as early as 2024, Brooks said.

That fund was generated by a 0.5% five-county Milwaukee-area sales tax that ended in 2020.

State has $4 billion surplus. Milwaukee faces budget challenge

Opponents of local spending say the state has a $99 billion two-year budget, including a $4 billion surplus.

The county and city have 2023 budgets of $1.37 billion and $1.72 billion, respectively. They also face greater fiscal challenges even as they generate an outsized amount of state income and sales tax revenue, and as a number of outstate companies shift operations to Milwaukee.

Also, American Family Field and its parking lots, which could eventually host commercial development, are exempt from property taxes − the main form of local government revenue.

But the county and city each have a sales tax that applies to Brewers tickets and other items sold at the ballpark.

“If the team leaves, they have the most to lose,” Vos said. “I think it’s a good deal for everybody.”

The city’s new sales tax and the county’s sales tax increase were each approved in July by local officials. Those actions were allowed under state legislation which also provides increased shared state revenue for the city and county.

The Republican proposal would twice tax city residents because they also are county residents, Mayor Cavalier Johnson said. He said the Brewers should be pushed to create commercial developments next to the ballpark − which would generate property tax revenue if the site’s exemption is changed.

Johnson’s bottom line: he wants the Brewers to stay in Milwaukee. But American Family Field is owned by a state-created district, not the city.

“So I would prefer that the number that the city contributed was zero, but understand that that’s probably unlikely given the superiority of or the supremacy of state law over over local laws,” he said.

County Executive David Crowley called the ball club an important community asset and said he wants a bipartisan stadium funding plan.

‘However, it is important to recognize Milwaukee County is still facing a significant fiscal deficit over the next several years,” Crowley’s statement said. ” Any new proposal by the State of Wisconsin must recognize that reality.”

Opposition includes local officials and state legislators

But, even if Johnson and Crowley support it, the plan will be opposed by several Common Council and County Board members.

The County Board in May voted unanimously for a resolution opposing county funds for the stadium. And five members of the 15-member Common Council in July issued a statement opposing city funding for the project.

However, the legislation also allows for possible cuts in state shared revenue to the county and city to help fund stadium renovations, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The legislation also may have trouble obtaining approval from the state Senate, where it can only lose five of 22 Republican votes − assuming all 11 Senate Democrats oppose it, said Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee.

“There are a core of very fiscal conservative senators that I don’t see supporting a state bailout,” said Carpenter, who’s opposed to local stadium funding.

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, also characterized the plan as being too burdensome on Milwaukee taxpayers, saying “the Republican plan put forward today falls short.”

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, indicated the proposal might still see changes.

“There’s still work to be done, but the framework of the proposal introduced today will hopefully garner the bipartisan support necessary to keep the Brewers in Milwaukee until 2050,” LeMahieu said, in a statement.

Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, indicated her caucus wouldn’t support the bill. 

Neubauer said the Republican proposal “falls short of recognizing the regional benefit of American Family Field and places too great of a financial burden on the city and county of Milwaukee.”

“We remain willing to continue conversations and hopeful that a bipartisan agreement can be reached,” she said.

Said Brooks, “We know we’ll have to bring the Democrats in on this deal.”

American Family Field in 2022 supported 3,000 full- and part-time jobs, including Brewers employees and people working for concessions operators and other ballpark vendors. Also, the ballpark on average draws roughly 1 million more fans annually compared with the team’s previous home, County Stadium.

However, skeptics say there are numerous studies which say those benefits are overblown − with most of them going to the team’s owners, executives and players. Economists point out that money spent at a ballpark is discretionary income that will likely shift to other activities if that stadium shuts down.

Attanasio has said repeatedly he wants the Brewers to stay in Milwaukee for the long term.

While MLB team moves are rare, the Oakland Athletics in May reached an agreement to relocate from the publicly owned Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum to Las Vegas − where a $1.5 billion stadium would be built with $380 million in public funds. MLB owners are to vote in November on whether to approve the move.

Both Brooks and Vos thanked the Brewers for the baseball club’s willingness to stay in Wisconsin.

“Baseball is a very, very competitive industry,” Brooks said. “We’re just grateful they’re going to stay here.”

Reporters Molly Beck, Alison Dirr, Jessie Opoien and Vanessa Swales contributed to this article.

Tom Daykin can be emailed at tdaykin@jrn.com and followed on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

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