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Bucks reportedly negotiating to buy Journal building for new arena site

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We may not have to wait to hear about the Milwaukee Bucks' preferred new arena site after all.

Two days after Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry indicated a 30-60 day timetable for finalizing an arena site, Jim Owczarski of OnMilwaukee.com reported Thursday night that the team was in negotiations to buy the Journal Communications building, with another site at 4th and Wisconsin rumored to be their second choice.

According to several sources within the Milwaukee Department of City Development and the commercial real estate community, Milwaukee Bucks co-owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry are in negotiations to purchase the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel buildings with the intention of building a new arena on the block of land known as Journal Square.

The deal is not complete, but sources familiar with the negotiations say the Bucks ownership group has architectural renderings of an arena which fits within the Journal Square at 333 W. State St., a site that sits between 3rd and 4th streets to the east and west, and State Street and Kilbourn Avenue from the north to south.

A source indicated this is the ownership group's preferred location for a new arena.

Owczarski's piece is a long and thoroughly researched story well worth your time, and its conclusions would also seem consistent with the speculation we've been hearing for months. Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal first reported the possibility of the Journal building being in play back in July, with the merger of E.W. Scripps and Journal Communications days later only adding to speculation that the Journal would look to sell off its building amidst downsizing and reorganizationOn paper it's a good compromise: It's near Wisconsin Ave (preferred by the Mayor's office), not as isolated as previously discussed sites north of the current BC (so there's at least something already there), with good access to the Milwaukee River and views of Pere Marquette Park (scenic vistas!).

If the Bucks did end up buying the Journal site, the obvious follow up question is whether a new arena development might stretch across 4th Street towards the current UWM Panther Arena. Prominent local architect David Uihlein--the son of Bradley Center benefactor Jane Pettit--has proposed demolishing Panther Arena and the adjacent Milwaukee Theater across the block from Journal Square to make way for a new Bucks arena, with the Bradley Center itself also to be demolished (in what order is less clear). Others have floated a hybrid project spanning 4th Street that would involve the Journal Square property and at least Panther Arena, with the underperforming Milwaukee Theater potentially also involved. The former is also the solution that SaveOurBucks advocated for in late August, and would solve potential concerns around the Journal Square site being too small on its own. You can get a general sense of the geography and size of the various spots in the map below--note the relative tight space on the Journal site compared to the existing BC:

MKEMap140918

A project involving Journal Square is appealing on a number of levels, though extending it across 4th Street would likely bring both political and financial challenges. Any project involving the Milwaukee Theater and Panther Arena would set up a showdown with the Wisconsin Center District, whose Chairman Frank Gimbel has already voiced his opposition to tearing down two of the WCD's three main facilities. The additional time and cost associated with razing Journal Square and Panther Arena would also require both additional time and money, and the $28 million in debt still owed on the Milwaukee Theater doesn't help its optics, even if it's a red herring in the grand scheme of things. As a result, Owczarski termed the Panther Arena/Milwaukee Theater as an "unlikely" site at this stage, though building across the street would necessarily have ramifications on the adjacent properties. For one, Milwaukee simply doesn't need three multi-purpose arenas, so something will have to be done with the BC and Panther Arena after (and possibly before) a new arena is complete. Bradley Center Board Chairman Marc Marotta has already warned that the BC will require $100 million in capital expenditures to remain viable over the next decade, making it difficult to imagine the BC being an economic option no matter what happens.

So what might the Bucks do if they land the Journal site? Well, putting forth a stand-alone project concept on the Journal Square site would likely maximize the Bucks' leverage going forward, even if they did prefer a broader development. Rule 1 of negotiating: Convince the other guy you don't actually need him. Having plans for the Journal Square site on its own would thus be a critical first step, even if the team remains open to something bigger. Of course, they'd have to land the Journal site first.

Fortunately for the Bucks, Gimbel and the WCD aren't in a position of particular strength at the moment either. The WCD's convention center business has stagnated over the past decade, the Theater is an admitted underperformer, and Panther (nee Mecca) Arena is both ancient and non-essential in the grand scheme of things. It's no coincidence that just a few months ago Gimbel was proposing to piggyback a $200 million convention center expansion along on top of a potential arena tax, though the prospect of the WCD's properties being demolished wasn't part of that deal. Also worth noting is that Gimbel's re-election vote was curiously postponed last week, raising further questions about his future as head of the Wisconsin Center District. It's not to say that the Bucks and WCD couldn't work together, especially if a cut of the $28 million in tourist/convention taxes the WCD currently rakes in annually went towards a new arena. Given the proximity of the Journal Square site to the WCD, you'd like to think there's still room to find a comprehensive solution that could be in both sides' long term interest.

Stay tuned, eh?