Amid funding debate, here is what the Brewers want upgraded at American Family Field
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- After the Milwaukee County Board voted unanimously Thursday to oppose putting any more county dollars toward American Family Field, the future of the Brewers in Wisconsin became more uncertain.
The Brewers and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred maintain they're only seeking to have the team's lease honored. Under that lease, which ends in 2030 but gives the ballclub the option of extending it through 2040, a publicly funded, state-created stadium district is responsible for maintaining the stadium.
The issue now dividing state and local politicians is how to fund renovations the Brewers say are necessary.
A report commissioned by the Brewers estimated the park would need $428 million in repairs through 2040. A second study, commissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which operates under Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, estimated the costs through 2040 could run anywhere between $567 million and $667 million.
That second report estimated the park could use nearly $400 million in repairs by 2030 alone. Among those needs were concourse and bathroom renovations, roof repairs, club level upgrades and new outfield panels.
At Thursday's county board meeting, Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, who was a member of the legislature for the 1995 vote that created the stadium district, said he felt the team was going back on its word by seeking public funding for the extensive list of repairs.
"It was a promise, and that's why we made the deal [in 1995,]" Wasserman said. "That's why we voted for it."
Wasserman said the five-county, one-cent sales tax in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Washington and Waukesha counties was meant to cover maintenance the stadium needed. The stadium district allowed the tax to sunset in 2020; it was originally forecast to end in 2010.
"Now it's being turned on us all these years later," Wasserman said. "And I'm supposed to vote for this again? Hell no."
The Brewers and Manfred bristle at the suggestion they've broken a promise. Manfred told reporters at American Family Field Thursday he was optimistic elected leaders would find a way to fund stadium renovations.
"I remain confident that the Brewers are a great asset for the fans here in Milwaukee," Manfred said. "And that the governmental entities are gonna find a way to fund the obligation they agreed to when this ballpark was built."
Where negotiations stand
Manfred repeatedly cited the lease in Thursday's press gaggle, indicating the league felt the taxpayer-funded stadium district must cover ballpark upgrades through at least 2030.
Evers proposed giving the stadium district nearly $300 million in state funding as part of the upcoming two-year state budget. He reasoned that money would accrue interest over time while covering repairs through 2043.
Republican lawmakers, who control the legislature, stripped that money out of the budget. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has said the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County need to provide stadium funding, too.
Thursday's vote made clear county officials are completely off board with offering any more stadium support.
Vos has suggested the state's share of funding should be based on what it collects in income tax revenue from MLB personnel.
According to data provided by the Department of Revenue, Wisconsin has collected a yearly average of $9.85 million from MLB teams since 2012. A CBS 58 analysis of those annual figures excluded the COVID-shorted 2020 season.
Is this a wise use of public money?
A 2020 report paid for by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce estimated the Brewers and the stadium, which was then called Miller Park, had generated an economic impact of $2.5 billion for Wisconsin since the park opened in 2001.
That report figured in direct spending, job wages, travel and media exposure among its considerations. The Evers administration cited those estimates when announcing its proposed stadium funding in the governor's budget.
Those types of reports have, for years, drawn widespread skepticism from independent economists who've looked into whether public financing of professional sports generates the revenue teams and politicians often tout.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred just finished talking to reporters at AmFam Field.— A.J. Bayatpour (@AJBayatpour) May 25, 2023
When asked why the public should put more money into stadium renovations, he said the economic benefits ensure it's not an "expense" for taxpayers.
Numerous economists say otherwise. pic.twitter.com/ZzA2ucpfsp
One of the most recent such studies comes from Rob Baumann at College of the Holy Cross and JC Bradbury at Kennesaw State University, who earlier this month concluded economic benefits estimates were greatly overstated for a new minor league stadium in Worcester, Massachusetts and Truist Park, which was built for the Atlanta Braves in Cobb County, Georgia.
Baumann cited the same thing past reports have: what's known as "the substitution effect." Essentially, it concludes much of the money spent on pro sports teams doesn't disappear from the economy if those teams leave. Instead, the vast majority of those dollars would go toward different sources of recreation.
"It's kind of a wash, you know what I mean?" Baumann said in an interview. "You're either gonna go to a Brewers game, and if that doesn't exist, or if they're away that weekend, you're going to spend it likely somewhere else in the area."
Baumann said the study isn't arguing pro sports don't have value for a community. Rather, this, and other similar studies, focus on whether taxpayers truly get an actual return on what they spend. When looking purely at the money in such deals, he said such funding is an expense, not an investment, more often than not.
"We're not saying there's no intangible benefits here," Baumann said. "I think everyone agrees those are hard to measure, and so we can appreciate people who are like, 'yeah, I would throw a little bit of tax money in that direction because it gives us a national profile.'"
As the funding negotiations play out in Wisconsin, the Brewers and MLB can ultimately threaten to move elsewhere. The Athletics are currently poised to move from Oakland to Las Vegas after failing to reach a deal for a new stadium in the Bay Area.
Manfred said Thursday Milwaukee and the Brewers have had a much better relationship to date, and he noted the team typically draws well at the gate.
Baumann said that support is Milwaukee's leverage, and local leaders should question whether the team would truly find greener pastures if the public refuses to meet the Brewers' requests.
"Hey, don't forget you have bargaining power, too," Baumann said. "There's a reason the Brewers are there in the first place."