MILWAUKEE -- After nearly a year of negotiations, the matter of American Family Field funding -- and whether the Brewers will remain in Milwaukee beyond the end of this decade -- has reached the ninth inning.
A pair of amended stadium funding bills passed the Wisconsin State Senate on Tuesday following a down-to-the-wire debate, sending the bills back to the State Assembly where they passed as well. With those major hurdles cleared, all that’s needed is a signature from Gov. Tony Evers, who has already signaled his support of the package to fund maintenance and improvements at the Brewers’ ballpark while extending the team’s lease to 2050.
“We now can all go to sleep tonight knowing the Brewers are going to be here for the next generation in a great, beautifully-maintained ballpark that is worthy of fan support,” Brewers president of business operations Rick Schlesinger said following the Senate action.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the package that passed the Senate calls for about $500 million in funding through 2050 from the State of Wisconsin, Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee. The Brewers are pledging another $150 million under the plan, Schlesinger said, including rent payments, contributions to the Stadium District’s segregated reserve fund plus the team’s own, voluntary capital improvements.
“Even though we knew that the confines of the bill would be different than when we started, we knew and we were confident that we had support in the state for our team,” Schlesinger said. “We recognized the value of keeping the Brewers here, of keeping the ballpark in great shape, and we stuck to the narrative.
“We recognize that people have differing views, but I think we made a compelling case. In this day and age when bipartisanship is rare, we were able to forge a very bipartisan bill that got passed in the Assembly and now in the Senate.”
At issue all along has been funding for the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, an entity created by the state in the 1990s that owns and maintains the stadium, which opened in 2001 as Miller Park. Per terms of the original 30-year lease, the Stadium District collects rent from the Brewers and is charged with maintaining everything from the boilers in the basement to the fan-shaped convertible roof overhead, with a promise to keep the ballpark up to the standard of others across MLB.
Originally, construction and maintenance was funded by a sales tax impacting the five counties surrounding the ballpark. That tax sunsetted in 2020, however, and since then Brewers officials, the Stadium District and lawmakers had been discussing how to fund maintenance into the future, with club officials and supportive lawmakers arguing it was worth the public investment because of the economic benefit of having a Major League Baseball franchise in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
The Brewers say the ballpark supported 3,000 jobs in 2022, and is projected to produce $24.1 million in state and county taxes in '23, including income taxes from players. In the bigger picture, one study commissioned by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce in 2020, when the stadium tax was nearing its end, said the stadium generated $2.5 billion in statewide economic impact during its first 19 seasons.
“The State of Wisconsin is far better off with the Brewers here,” said Republican Sen. Dan Feyen of Fond du Lac, per the Associated Press.
The funding issue has been in the headlines since February, when Evers first proposed $290 million in the state budget as part of a plan to fund close to $450 million in upgrades while extending the lease to 2043. Republicans who control the state legislature rejected that plan and proposed their own over the summer, calling for $600 million from state and local sources, plus $100 million from the Brewers along with a promise to extend the lease through 2050.
Back and forth the discussions went, gaining significant momentum last month before a bill passed in the Assembly. The final hurdle was the Senate, where 17 votes were required. Proponents of the bills got there with amendments to increase county and city representation on the Stadium District board, and with fees added to non-baseball events at American Family Field that will decrease the state’s financial burden over the coming decades.
The final package passed the Senate on a 19-14 vote with support from both Republicans and Democrats.
It won’t be long before work begins at American Family Field. Schlesinger said the Brewers have a number of projects waiting for approval from the Stadium District as soon as next month to replace freezers and cooling systems, repair concrete on the stadium concourses and to upgrade outdated broadcasting infrastructure.
“Things, again, that fans may not necessarily see are going to have to be addressed,” Schlesinger said. “Now with what we expect the governor to sign, the money will be there for the District to start putting these projects together.”