Milwaukee Bucks president urges public dollars for new arena

MADISON, Wis. -- Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin urged Wisconsin lawmakers on Monday to pass legislation that would put taxpayers on the hook for half the cost of a new, $500 million arena. Feigin said the project would be an economic boon and would keep the team in the state.

Feigin told the legislature's budget committee construction needs to start this year, or the NBA will move the team, possibly to Las Vegas or Seattle, though he didn't elaborate. He also said the project could create thousands of construction jobs, lead to the Bucks' hiring 50 to 100 more people and draw attention to the state as the team improves.

"An NBA team, the Bucks, is a worldwide attraction," Feigin said. "The NBA is an international beacon. You'll never be able to replace the revenue if the Bucks leave."

John Koskinen, chief economist for the state Department of Revenue, told the committee the Bucks contribute about $130 million annually to Wisconsin's gross domestic product. He said income taxes on Bucks personnel generate $6.5 million per year. By 2019, that number should grow to $10.4 million annually.

Still, Rep. Dean Knudson wasn't buying it. The Republican was the only committee member who voted against holding a hearing on the legislation. He said the economic predictions were exaggerated.

"It's all kind of hocus-pocus," said Knudson, who lives in Hudson. "It's just wild-eyed optimism about what might happen."

Feigin was among the handful of individuals tied to the Bucks or local government who were invited to testify before the Republican-controlled budget committee. None testified against the plan. The invite-only hearing irked Democrats on the committee, who said the public was being left out of a debate about a plan that would cost taxpayers $250 million.

The Bucks, who currently play in the 27-year-old BMO Harris Bradley Center, lack the loyal, statewide following the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers enjoy. The team made the playoffs this spring with a 41-41 record but finished the previous season with an NBA-worst 15-67 record.

The NBA has warned Bucks' owners that if they don't have a new arena by 2017, the league will buy the team and move it.

Gov. Scott Walker, a presumed 2016 Republican presidential candidate, included $220 million in bonding for the new arena in his state budget proposal. That plan generated complaints among conservatives who oppose state borrowing and government funding for sports arenas.

Last month, Republican leaders unveiled a new plan to fund the arena. That plan includes $150 million from the Bucks' owners, $100 million from former owner Herb Kohl and $250 million generated over the next 20 years through a mix of state and local taxes.

The total public cost could be about $377 million with interest, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The Bucks would enter a 30-year lease at the new arena and agree not to relocate during the lease.

The committee didn't vote Monday on the new plan, which is now separate from the state budget. The legislation could reach the senate floor as early as this week.

"It's an opportunity of a generation," said Sen. Alberta Darling, a River Hills Republican and co-chairwoman of the budget committee. "If we don't do it, we have a lot to lose."

Darling countered Democrats' criticism about the lack of public comment during Monday's hearing by saying public hearings had already been held on the budget, which included Walker's arena plan.

Her fellow co-chair, Rep. John Nygren, a Republican from Marinette, said he hasn't seen many arena deals as favorable to the state as this. But he warned Feigin he has a lot of work to do to build the Bucks' fan base.

"There's still a level of skepticism when you go north," Nygren told Feigin during the hearing. "But when I explained the deal and potential loss of revenue, people got it."