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New American Family Field vision emerging–but is it a practical one?

As Wisconsin lawmakers and the Milwaukee Brewers hammer out a funding deal, we’re seeing a new American Family Field vision emerge–but is it the right one for the ballpark?

When Gov. Tony Evers suggested spending $290 million of the state’s $7 billion budget surplus on ballpark renovations mandated by the team’s lease, it was definitely a modest proposal, covering the boring part of ballpark maintenance–HVAC upgrades, roof repairs, things that naturally occur after 20 years after opening. The Brewers would pay $110 million for upgrades affecting the fan side of the equations and commit to a lease extension through 2043.

Wisconsin politics are on the dysfunctional side, and Republicans in the Legislature immediately opposed this simple and elegant proposal by introducing a more complex plan originally unveiled by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. The plan from Assembly Republicans called for the state to pay $400 million toward ballpark improvements–some $110 million more than Evers proposed–and tack on $200 million from Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee. The Brewers’ contribution would decrease to $100 million in the same time frame and commit the team to a lease extension through 2050.

The most intriguing thing about the negotiations has been the state–and not the Brewers–proposing increased money to turn the entire ballpark into a climate-controlled facility. Right now there’s no climate control in the actual ballpark bowl; if it’s cold outside it will be cold inside, and if it’s hot outside it will be hot inside. That means the bowl is largely unused for a winter break–October through February.

Wisconsin legislators want to see additional money spent on turning the totality of AmFamField into a year-round destination to attract more big touring shows. But here’s the thing: the big concert stadium tours–featuring the likes of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Pink and Morgan Wallen–are summertime events. It’s not as though there are major touring shows hitting the Upper Midwest in January, February and March. Check out the event schedule at U.S. Bank Stadium, and you’ll see nothing but a Monster Truck Rally and University of Minnesota Golden Gopher baseball between the end of the NFL season and June concerts. The big record-setting events–Ed Sheeran set the stadium record for one-night attendance, Taylor Swift set the stadium record for a two-night event–all happen in the summer. And there is big money to be made off the big touring shows: the Brewers generated some $25.44 million in gross revenue from two Morgan Wallen concerts when you total ticket, concessions and parking fees in 2023.

Of course, these are the big events, not the smaller ones not open to the public. And while the Brewers have taken steps to make American Family Field a year-round destination by installing a golf facility in the left-field corner formerly occupied by a club and the installation of a microbrewery at the old TGIF Fridays space, the team’s American Family Field vision never entailed turning the entire ballpark into a climate-controlled space.

And, to be honest, the whole insistence from Wisconsin legislators to turn American Family Field into a year-round destination seems to be an impulsive demand, not backed by any market research. From the Milwaukee State Journal:

“We don’t have any details on it,” said Tim Sheehy, board president of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, a day after the announcement. The state-created district owns AmFam Field and is responsible under the lease for most major renovations.

Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, co-author of the stadium funding legislation, told the Journal Sentinel the winterization idea came from discussions among legislators and others about how to expand the ballpark to include uses other than Brewers games.

“You want a public facility,” said Brooks, who added monster truck shows to the list of possible off-season events at the ballpark. “It just seemed to make a lot of sense.”

In terms of daily operations, AmFam Field is run as an outdoor facility in the wintertime: the water lines are drained and the restrooms and concession areas completely shut down. So to turn American Field Field into a year-round destination would be the installation of a completely new HVAC system to heat and cool the facility, as well as the support equipment needed to monitor the system. It does not sound like the Wisconsin Republicans have yet priced out this piece of the funding puzzle.

Indeed, if you caught a hearing yesterday on the proposed funding plan, it was pretty apparent state legislators really don’t have a handle on exactly where the money would come from–only that they don’t want to see $290 million of a $7 billion budget surplus used instead of bonding. It sounds like the Milwaukee County and City of Milwaukee unfunded mandates are already being reconsidered to some extent, according to testimony at a hearing held yesterday by the State Assembly State Affairs Committee. It’s been proposed using the proceeds of an existing player tax to fund the improvements, but that’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul; it’s all state money in the long run. Some legislators suggested reviving the five-county (Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, Racine and Waukesha) 0.1 percent sales tax originally instituted to fund construction of then-Miller Park–a proposal that’s probably not going to curry much support from legislators outside Milwaukee County. (Indeed, when the tax was first instituted, taxpayers in conservative areas voted politicians out of office for their support of the tax. Hard to see the taxpayers of Waukesha County lining up to pay that tax again.) And also mentioned was a ticket tax on events apart from Brewers games.

A debate about the future of American Family Field is a good one. There are ways to activate that area of Milwaukee outside of a climate-controlled ballpark, however; talk about creating an entertainment district south of the ballpark should have side appeal both for Milwaukee-area politicians and the Brewers. There are plenty of blueprints for this sort of development, including the TitleTown development in Green Bay as part of the Lambeau Field footprint.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out politically: Even if the Assembly can craft an agreement passing that body, there’s no guarantee that the state Senate would pass it as well. What began as a knee-jerk reaction by Republican partisans to stick it to a Democratic governor and the heavily Democratic city of Milwaukee has turned into a quagmire of sorts.

RELATED STORIES: Brewers would pay less for American Family Field renovations under new Republican plan; Manfred: Find way to renovate American Family Field, or….; Battle over AmFamField renovations pulls Manfred into fray; Murky waters ahead for American Family Field renovations; Initial funding proposal for American Family Field renovations shot downState surplus would help fund American Family Field maintenanceMilwaukee County debates American Family Field developmentBrewers warn of need for American Family Field improvements

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