From the beginning, critics sniped that spending $42 million in taxpayer dollars for the “Milwaukee Theater” would be a colossal waste of money. Critics argued that Milwaukee already had enough entertainment venues (The Marcus Center, the Pabst Theater, the Riverside ) and predicted that the new theater – the brainchild of Milwaukee Center District Board Chairman Frank Gimbel -- would be a costly, duplicative white elephant.
They had no idea.
A quick look at the Milwaukee Theater’s 2008 schedule reveals a vast wasteland of empty seats and darkened houses, a boondoggle of astounding proportions, even by Milwaukee ’s free-spending standards. (We are, after all, the home of the multi-billion dollar Deep Tunnel.)
In May, the Theater is scheduled to host Garrison Keillor and a production of “Evita.” In June, it has a single entertainment booking -- “Raven Symone’s Pajama Party Concert,” but that has been postponed indefinitely. But after that concert, the taxpayer-funded Theater has nothing on the schedule for the next six months. Nothing. (“Celtic Thunder” is scheduled to perform on December 16, the one and only performance booked for the remainder of the year.)
From May 1, through the end of 2008, the theater is booked for commercial entertainment events on just five nights. (The US Cellular Arena, which is also part of the Wisconsin Center , is booked for only a single event in the second half of the year.)
All of this is right across the street from Milwaukee ’s premiere sports arena, the Bradley Center . With the collapse of the ill-conceived plans to sell the naming rights, attention is already shifting to alternatives, including merging the private Bradley Center with the Center District.
But the track record suggests that more radical surgery may be needed.
The Bradley Center was a gift from philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit; it receives no tax dollars. In contrast, the Wisconsin Center District Board has control over hotel room, rental car, and food and beverage taxes. The autonomous, under-the-the radar body is an unelected body, with appointees from the mayor, common council president, county executive and governor. In reality, it often seems to function as a personal fiefdom of Gimbel, its politically-wired chairman.
In the past, the district has resisted efforts to merge with the Bradley Center and has pursued its own agenda, at times aggressively. In 2001, Gimbel and the board ignored the Bradley Center ’s tentative plans to build its own privately-funded theater venue and pushed ahead with their own costly public-funded theater. The move effectively killed any prospect that the Bradley Center would be able to add the venue or enhance its revenue.
Even so, Gimbel and the Wisconsin center plunged ahead with the Milwaukee Theater, even swallowing $10 million in cost overruns.
Since its opening, Gimbel and the board have been anxious to portray the Theater in the best possible light, despite its apparent inability to book enough acts to keep its lights on for more than a small fraction of the year.
Last year, the Milwaukee Business Journal reported that Gimbel was claiming a 12.7 percent increase in attendance for 2006. But, the paper reported, “the record year was driven more by meetings than performing arts and entertainment shows.” In an apparent effort to mask declining attendance, the district was counting meetings of local businesses that had previously been held across the street in the Midwest Airlines Center ballroom.
This year, the district is filling seats with a variety of graduation events from local colleges and high schools.
But that is hardly enough to mask the extent of the boondoggle: at a time when the privately-funded Bradley Center is apparently in need of an upgrade, taxpayers have already squandered tens of millions of dollars on a near-empty venue across the street.
Until the legislature and/or local leaders step in to dismantle the dysfunctional fiefdoms that created this fiasco, the Milwaukee Theater will continue to be a monument both to the peril of taxation without representation and the cost of failed leadership.
-April 24, 2008