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A lesson for Minnesota? Ill will lingers over Milwaukee ballpark deal
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Two fans of the Milwaukee Brewers watch the fifteenth inning of a game against the Arizonia Diamondbacks on April 22, 2004 at Miller Park in Milwaukee. The team has not performed well since the new stadium opened. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Like Minnesota, Wisconsin went through years of contentious negotiations before lawmakers authorized public subsidies for the Milwaukee Brewers three-year-old home, Miller Park. And like Minnesota, supporters there said the small-market team needed the ballpark to stay competitive. It hasn't worked out that way. The team continues to lose more than win and attendance is poor. And ill will lingers over the way the deal came together.

St. Paul, Minn. — Before game time at Milwaukee's Miller Park, the Brewers play a montage of baseball film clips. One is from Field of Dreams disembodied voice of James Earl Jones tells the Kevin Costner character to build his stadium.

In Milwaukee they did build a new stadium and the fans came...for about a season. After Miller Park's first year in 2001, attendance has dropped off by 40 percent. On a weeknight game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, with Cy Young winner Randy Johnson pitching, the Brewers drew a little more than 11,000 fans in a stadium that holds about four times that.

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Image Miller Park

The road to Miller Park was a bumpy one and some say fraught with lessons for places like Minnesota.

Miller Park's critics say today's problems began with the legislative process that led to its creation nearly a decade ago. They say too much of the dealing went on behind closed doors without public input. Even fans who show up at the park speak of the lingering resentment.

"Nobody's against, baseball people aren't against the Brewers like as an organization or team," said one woman at the Diamondback game. "And I don't think they were against building a new park. Initially the way it was handled," chimed in her daughter.

The Seligs are the family that owns the Brewers. Patriarch Bud Selig is now the commissioner of baseball, and can't take an active role in operating the franchise. But in 1995 he was running the team, and led the push for public financing of Miller Park. After years of negotiations and divided public opinion, he got his wish at 5 a.m. on an October morning when one Wisconsin legislator changed his vote on public financing. Selig said then that, in time, the public would understand the need for Miller Park.

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Image Acknowledges dissatisfaction

"This was a very difficult experience but I submit to you that in April 1999 when the new ballpark opens, this will be a distant memory and I said last week, they did the right thing here tonight," Selig said.

The deal called for $90 million from the Brewers. The public would borrow $160 million and pay it off with a sales tax increase in five Milwaukee-area counties. Another $72 million of public money was to go into roads and other infrastructure. Since then, there are estimates that the public's share of the bill has grown to around $400 million.

Whether the legislature did the right thing depends on who you talk to in Milwaukee.

Long-time Milwaukee observers say the city was more desperate than most places not to lose a team. After all, the city attracted the Braves from Boston in the early 1950s with a public stadium, only to lose them in 1966 to Atlanta.

In addition to the baseball history, there were economic woes. Manufacturing, brewing and assembly-line jobs which formed the city's economic backbone have largely gone south or left the country.

The head of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Tim Sheehy, says some fans may resent the stadium deal, but the bottom line was Wisconsin and particularly Milwaukee couldn't afford to lose the Brewers.

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Image It's about 'the way it was handled.'

"It is fundamentally the only way that this market would ever have Major League Baseball in 2002 and beyond," Sheehy said. "Without that new stadium we wouldn't have a baseball team. Now whether we have a competititve team or the team is making smart use of the revenue and whether they put players on the field, that's the crapshoot that every community takes and I'm hopeful we'll get that right sooner than later."

Baseball owners, including Bud Selig, have said the only way for teams like Milwaukee and Minnesota to stay competitive was to build new stadiums. But in Milwaukee that just hasn't happened. Last year, the team finished it's 11th straight losing season. That, along with the Seligs' slashing the payroll to around $30 million dollars and putting the team up for sale have fueled distrust among some Milwaukeeans.

"They slashed our payroll which I think is exactly opposite which makes a lot of people upset about it because that was the bill that sold us, that we'd be competitive if we had the revenue to produce with the other teams," said Eric Rhode who was enjoying lunch at a bar in viewing distance of Miller Park.

A 50-year-old man who didn't want to give his name lives at the Veteran's Home just up the hill from Miller Park. He remembers watching the Braves play at County Stadium and says it was time for a new park but he says the way state leaders and the team's owners approached the public could've been better.

"They could've been humbler," he said. "You know, they're talking well if you want a park we'll have to raise your taxes. They could've put it better than that. They could've been more humble with the people."

The organization that helped broker the deal and now acts as the Brewers' landlord at Miller Park is the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District. Its executive director, Michael Duckett, acknowledges the widespread dissatisfaction with the way the ballpark deal has played out. He says Minnesota could learn from Wisconsin's experiences with Miller Park and the Green Bay Packer's Lambeau Field. He says unlike Miller Park, state leaders put the idea of renovating Lambeau Field to a public referendum.

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Image A missing backbone

"And what happened is not so much the outcome of the vote, although that's important, but during the debate there was SO much discussion and so much education it was really critical that when they started the project, people understood what the project was, what it was going to result in, what the expectations should be, and when the process did start, it went very smoothly," Duckett said.

One Milwaukee county supervisor agrees. Roger Quindel says the baseball team only appreciated the public for the money it brought to the table. He says the Brewers could've done more to repay fans, such as setting aside some of the close-to-the-action seats for the average fan who can't afford season tickets or a corporate luxury box.

"They're too stupid to understand goodwill and all the rest of it matters," Quindel said. "Offering a few luxury suites that aren't sold anyways would've helped. Do things to make people feel some ownership. So you have to leave something aside. If you want a public investment you ought to offer the public something besides we're here."

The head of the Milwaukee Brewer's Corporate Affairs, Laurel Prieb, says he understands fans' frustrations. But he says there wouldn't be the kind of criticism if the Brewers were winning. Still, he says the Brewers hope to silence critics by opening their books for a limited audit.

"So much comes back to winning baseball games and this ownership has done nothing wrong," Prieb said. "They've always done everything above board to have a winning team here unfortunately over the last decade and we have not done that. And when you don't win, often times fans look for reasons why haven't they won? it must be something other than what it is."

There's also an underlying resentment that the public helped pay for Miller Park and has substantially raised the value of the team. There was no clause in the agreement that if the Selig's sold, taxpayers would get a share of the capital gains. When asked whether the Brewers would consider such a proposal now, Prieb said no.

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