About that Coliseum plan: A conversation with Joe Parisi

By now, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s opposition to an expensive Coliseum plan is well known but not all of his reasons are.

Parisi has commented at length about the misplaced priorities of a $117 million plan to demolish the existing Coliseum and build a new arena with so much work still to be done on lake cleanup and other priorities.

The proposal, part of a study conducted by the Hammes Co., was announced in the middle of 2016 county budget deliberations; from Parisi’s perspective, it came out of left field.

No revelation

News that the county has to “do something” with the Alliant Energy Center campus is no revelation to Parisi. In his first year in office, he asked former county executive Rick Phelps to head a task force to look at the campus, assess the needs, and recommend incremental steps to put it on a stronger footing.

“The first order of business was looking at the barns out there, the very outdated facilities, and the reality that the World Dairy Expo was having to consider going somewhere else because our facilities could not handle it,” Parisi recounts.

With feedback from various partners, the county looked at what it would take to keep World Dairy Expo, secure more bookings the other 360 days of the year, and determine the right amount to spend. The result was a partnership between the county, state, and World Dairy to build the $25 million New Holland Pavilions at a cost of more than $12 million to the county.

Backers of the new arena plan say a new arena is needed to bring more visitors and new hotels, restaurants, and retail establishments. Parisi has no issues with the kind of long-term visioning that led to the Coliseum proposal but favors an incremental approach to get the biggest bang for the buck and address immediate needs.

Veterans Memorial Coliseum

“It’s fine to do visioning and think about what do we want to do 10 or 20 years down the road, but I have to deal with the day-in and day-out reality that we have to balance the books out there and we have to keep it off of the tax levy,” he states. “We don’t want it going on to the property tax because we see it as self-sustaining. It’s an enterprise fund.”

Admittedly, there has been some deferred maintenance at the Coliseum. It hasn’t been attracting the shows it once did, and Parisi says business interests like Frank Productions and others endorsed an incremental approach that includes building new loading docks. The lack of loading docks makes it more expensive for shows to come here because it costs them significantly more to load and unload.

The facility also has outdated light rigging, which adds tens of thousands of dollars to some shows due to the time and the effort required to rig their own lights.

In addition, Coliseum operators wanted a seat-reduction vehicle, be it a curtain or covers, so that performers in smaller shows don’t feel like they’re entertaining in a half-empty venue.

The County’s Board’s Public Works Committee asked for an economic impact study before any of these recommendations were approved. The study confirmed the county’s biggest return on investment involved the aforementioned improvements plus the renovation of bathrooms and the foyer area.

“When you look at it, do we want to spend $3 million to $5 million right now and continue to do incrementally what we need to do, and realize that return on investment that keeps the facility off the levy, or are we going to spend all of our time visioning and talking about the next 10 years and whether we should build a $120 million facility?” Parisi asks. “We don’t have that luxury. I don’t have that luxury. My job as county executive is to manage the day-to-day operations of county government, and if we had not begun to do the incremental changes that we’ve put in place, we would be in trouble right now.”

With the New Holland Pavilions, the county has secured commitments from World Dairy Expo and other shows it wanted to keep, and the Alliant Energy Center is $900,000 ahead of projected income due in large part to the pavilions, he states.



Clean lakes = strong economy

The condition of local lakes, Parisi adds, is a more pressing issue, both in terms of the environment and economic development. In his view, spending $120 million on a new Coliseum would drain resources from clean lakes technology and programs related to homelessness and general infrastructure improvements.

The investment for lakes clean up is multifaceted and includes $500,000 for a phosphorous-reduction program, a $750,000 fund that agricultural producers can access for buffers that reduce manure runoff along streams that feed into Lake Mendota, and a $1.4 million fund to capture pollution from storm water before it ends up in the lakes.

In Parisi’s view, those who want to spend $120 million on a new Coliseum must answer the following question: What do you want to set aside to make that money available? “To put $120 million in perspective, it’s three times the amount of the total capital budget that I proposed for 2016,” Parisi says. “The capital budget includes roads, vehicles, etc., so $120 million is way out of proportion when you look at the size of county government.”

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