Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News last week.
The latest version of the plan for taxpayers to refurbish and upgrade American Family Field for the Milwaukee Brewers is up for a vote in the Wisconsin Assembly this week. The $546 million package looks headed for passage with support from the Republicans, Gov. Tony Evers, the Brewers, and Milwaukee Democrats. Apparently, if there is anything that unites Wisconsin’s political parties, it is to spend half a billion taxpayer dollars on baseball.
The issue is that the taxpayers have majority ownership of the stadium. The current deal with the Brewers is that the taxpayers are responsible for maintaining the stadium and keeping it up to date with the rest of the league. The current funding is inadequate to keep up with the upgrades that the Brewers want for the stadium. Therefore, our politicians want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the stadium in exchange for the Brewers agreeing to stay in Wisconsin for longer.
The current package includes $411 million from state taxpayers and $67.5 million each from Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee. The contribution from Milwaukee city and County has been reduced since the last iteration in an effort to get support from Milwaukee’s local politicians. In addition, the Brewers have agreed to spend $100 million on upgrades. Several weeks ago, this column criticized the stadium funding deal currently being debated and further criticized the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, the government body that owns the majority of the stadium and manages its upkeep. I criticized the district for not monetizing the stadium on behalf of the taxpayers. I unfairly disparaged the district because the lease with the Brewers prohibits the district from using the stadium to generate revenue. For that, I apologize.
In the Brewers’ lease, the district (taxpayers) disclaims “all revenues generated by the operations of the Team or derived from the ownership of the Team’s Franchise, as well as from the operation of the Stadium Complex for the Permitted Uses.” In other words, even though the deal has been painted as the taxpayers acting as landlord and the Brewers as tenants, the Brewers actually get any revenue generated by the property.
All profit from sponsorships, concessions, concerts, restaurants, parking, or anything else goes to the Brewers. No wonder the team has ballooned in value from $225 million when the current ownership purchased it in 2004 to over $1.6 billion now according to Forbes. Will the taxpayers get any of that appreciated value if the team is sold?
As written, the stadium deal is terrible for taxpayers. They will spend $546 million to upgrade the stadium so that it can make even more money for the Brewers’ owners. In return, the Brewers will stay around a while longer. Unless, of course, the owners sell the team, in which case, all bets are off.
Before considering any funding to the stadium, conservatives should insist on the following. First, they should rewrite the lease to allow the taxpayers, though the SEWPBPD, to collect all profits generated by the stadium for non-Brewers activities. If the stadium is leased for a corporate event, concert, pro wrestling, political rally, or any other function that does not involve baseball, the taxpayers, who own the building, should receive the profits.
Second, the rent paid by the Brewers for the use of the stadium should be based on a revenue share arrangement for revenue generated during Brewers’ games and other baseball-related activities. These first two items will lessen, and possibly eliminate, the need for taxpayer support by making the stadium self-supporting. It will also provide reliable revenue to allow the SEWPBPD to continue to upgrade the facility for years to come.
Third, in the event that the Brewers are sold, the lease should require that the taxpayers are refunded the amount they have spent on the stadium. The value of the team has significantly increased in large part due to the wonderful stadium and the revenue it generates. The taxpayers deserve to have their generosity reimbursed instead of all of the net increase in value going to the owners. Alternatively, the Brewers could just grant the SEWPBPD an equity position in the team so that any proceeds from a sale would naturally flow proportionally back to the taxpayers.
Absent significant changes to the deal, it should be rejected. While politicians of both parties love to spend money and pose for pictures with the Brewers, someone needs to look out for the taxpayers.