Showtime nears: High hopes for new Milwaukee Bucks home

East of the river: That’s where most of downtown Milwaukee’s modern-day growth and revitalization have occurred, but one massive exception is emerging.

The $524 million bet ($250 million of it with taxpayer money) is that the burgeoning Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center project will generate excellent and enough new reasons to visit and linger.

Construction of the new home for the Milwaukee Bucks, to replace the 30-year-old Bradley Center, is 90 percent complete.

The project helps heal a city that was physically segregated by a partly constructed freeway spur. The mile-long, elevated Park East thoroughfare generated political heat for decades, but the road’s demolition in 2002 and 2003 didn’t spur development as much as many had hoped.

Until now.

Much of the 27 acres’ success, west of the Milwaukee River and near Old World Third Street, depends upon the starting lineup for the Live Block, an entertainment complex with beer garden that is under construction next to the arena. Alex Lasry of the Milwaukee Bucks expects major tenants to be announced before spring ends.

“We’re trying to create a new living room for Milwaukee,” one that is frequented by local residents as well as visitors, he explained during a recent hard-hat tour of the new arena. “We’re trying to create something unique to Milwaukee and to Wisconsin.”

He is the Bucks’ senior vice president and son of Marc Lasry, a billionaire hedge fund manager and co-owner of the team since 2014. A priority is to solicit Live Block tenants that will draw customers regardless of whether the arena is staging an event.

Expect a mix of locally and nationally known brands, Alex Lasry says: “those uniquely Wisconsin and unique to Wisconsin.”

Inside the arena is more square footage (714,000 square feet, compared to 550,000 at the Bradley Center) and fewer seats (about 17,500 compared to 18,500). “It’s built for the fan experience,” says Mike Sorge of Mortenson Construction, project director.

Vertigo comes to mind as I reminisce about nosebleed seats during Bradley Center events, a side effect that Sorge attributed to the existing arena’s V-shaped design. The new structure is bowl-shaped; that means less severe seating angles and improved sightlines.

Sorge says “wow” factors include large and looming views from the nearly 100-foot-tall atrium lobby, whose long and tall escalators “will draw you right in.” So instead of walking up and up to the new arena’s least-expensive seats, you start at the top tier of the structure and walk down no more than a few rows.

Reasonably priced “community tickets” and ticket promotions “should make games more accessible to a wider range of people,” says Lasry, who acknowledges the tendency for this type of project – at other locations – to “price out” average people.

He expects season ticket holders to fill the lower bowl’s 10,000 seats. Window views in the courtside club area, accessible to select season ticket holders, will show the home team coming and going from the locker room.

In the upper bowl are another 6,000 seats. Between the two tiers of seats is a floor reserved for suites (all but one remains unsold) and theater box seats.

The arena’s executive chef, Kenneth Hardiman, was formerly with Mason Street Grill. His new job involves development of signature dishes and arranging for local restaurants to bring specialties into the arena.

An indoor beer garden showcases craft beer, served with 30-some TVs overhead, to minimize the amount of game or event action that is missed. That’s in addition to selling MillerCoors products.

The primary scoreboard is 25 feet tall and 29 feet wide – almost twice the size of the Bradley Center’s – with an LED ribbon display that moves 360 degrees. Décor includes reclaimed materials such as Cream City brick and barnboard.

Although the structure can accommodate a floor of ice for hockey, “this is built for basketball,” Lasry says. Plus non-sports events: “This got branded as the new Bucks arena, but the Bucks will only use it around 50 times a year.”

That’s “a minority of the time,” as he sees it, and Lasry is banking on more concerts or other events that otherwise would have bypassed Milwaukee. He already counts comedian Kevin Hart (appearing Sept. 13) and a Maroon 5 concert (Sept. 16) in that category.

Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center is a working name for the arena (whose naming rights, we’re teased, will go to a Wisconsin company with national exposure). Construction will be completed by early August. Concert bookings are wide-ranging, including Justin Timberlake (Sept. 21), Metallica (Oct. 16), The Eagles (Oct. 18) and Elton John (Feb. 19, 2019).

Early rounds of the 2022 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament will happen at the new arena. A bid for the 2020 Democratic National Convention has been submitted. wisconsinesc.com

What has long attracted travelers in this neighborhood? On three cobblestone blocks of Old World Third Street is a compact mix of restaurants, bars and specialty shops with 19th century architecture. That includes Wisconsin Cheese Mart and Usinger’s Sausage outlet store; classic German cuisine at the century-old Mader’s and the lively Old German Beer Hall. visitmilwaukee.org