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It was controversial at the time. Twenty years later the Lambeau Field sales tax still pays dividends

Richard Ryman
Green Bay Press-Gazette

GREEN BAY – Twenty years after Brown County voters approved a sales tax to renovate Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers and the community continue to collect dividends.

"It gives us a financial base that, really, I can’t imagine what it would be like without it," said Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy. "I think it went well beyond what Bob (Harlan) even envisioned."

Harlan, who led the Packers from 1989 to 2007, spearheaded the effort to win approval of a 0.5% Brown County-only sales tax to help pay for the 2003 renovation of Lambeau Field. He argued that for the Packers to compete in the NFL and survive in the league's smallest market, they needed a modern stadium that also could make money all year, not just 10 times a season.

Subsequent expansions of Lambeau Field, additions to player facilities, and the Titletown District all are results of the foresight of Harlan, John Jones, John Underwood and the rest of the Packers and community leadership in the 1990s. As are the increased community spending of the Packers Foundation and the team's $400 million-plus reserve fund, which is allowing it to get through the COVID-19 pandemic without fans in the stands and normal business in the Lambeau Field Atrium.

John Jones, Packers vice president of administration, left, and Packers President Bob Harlan tour the construction addition to Lambeau Field on Nov. 29, 2001. In the background to the left is the steel framework of the Titletown atrium.

Brown County voters approved the 0.5% sales tax on Sept. 12, 2000, by a 53%-47% margin after a contentious campaign. The tax, which was retired in September 2015, provided $309.5 million to the Green Bay-Brown County Professional Football Stadium District, an average of $20.6 million per year. The income was as high as $24.6 million in 2014 and as low as $17.1 million in 2001.

Paul Jadin, who was mayor of Green Bay at the time, said the renovation of Lambeau Field was an unequivocal success. Nothing else in the state comes close, including the Brewers' Miller Park and the Bucks' Fiserv Forum, which he also praised as high-quality projects.

"Looking back 20 years, I’d be very comfortable saying Bob delivered about as well as any project has delivered," Jadin said. "Obviously, you can point to that vote and the outcome of the development of the stadium from there. It was the kickoff to everything that happened."

Political support from the county was not a given, said Patrick Webb, who was county finance director then, and now is executive director of the stadium district.

"My position was this could take away the sales tax as an option for Brown County for 30 years. That was one of our final funding sources. That was a tough nut for us to look at. Fortunately, we were able to retire the tax in half that time," Webb said.

There was a second measure on the ballot that would have had the county share tax proceeds with the Packers, which Jadin didn't endorse. It didn't pass, which is one reason the tax was retired after 15 years.

The renovation was completed in 2003. In 2011, the money paid off the bonds funding the $295 million project. The tax also provided $90 million needed to cover maintenance and operating costs, which were set by formula, through 2031.

Harlan in his memoir, "Green and Gold Moments, Bob Harlan and the Green Bay Packers," said passing the tax was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

“Well, we had a window of opportunity to get the stadium done," Harlan wrote. "I think God tapped me on the shoulder one day and said, ‘You’d better do it right now and get it over with.’ And we did. Now it’s in place for the future, and we can move forward. If we didn’t have the stadium, there wouldn’t be a future."

Lambeau Field and the Green Bay Packers' Titletown District development in 2018.

It was uncertain until election day whether the tax would pass. Opposition was intense, though there's little evidence of that now.

"I know it was a narrow vote; very close," Murphy said. "I have yet to meet a person who voted against it. Maybe it’s just that anybody that voted against it is not going to say that to me. I do hear from a lot of people, ‘I voted for it and I knew it would be great.’ "

The Packers say income generated by the 2003 renovation allowed them to renovate Lambeau Field yet again, adding more than 7,000 seats, new high-definition scoreboards, a new Pro Shop, new gates and other amenities, and a new Packers Hall of Fame and Atrium restaurant. They built the Johnsonville Tailgate Village and replaced turf on the fields. Concourse renovation is ongoing. The cost of those projects was $312 million and counting, all of it paid for without public money.

The increased revenue also allowed the team to acquire and develop land west of the stadium for what is now the Titletown District, a mix of business, housing and recreational developments that cost hundreds of millions more and also is ongoing.

"All you have to look at is the additions and the spending the Packers have done outside any tax money," Webb said. "They've been able to invest in the south end zone and all of the Titletown stuff without any additional sales tax. I think that is way beyond what anybody thought was going to happen." 

Other factors certainly helped.

Consecutive 10-year collective bargaining agreements with players provided financial stability, and the Packers' share of the (so far) ever-increasing payments from television deals provides more than half of the team's income. Its share was $274.3 million in 2019, compared with $163.3 million 10 years ago. 

National revenue accounted for 57.4% of the team's income in 2019. Local revenue was $203 million, compared with $119 million 10 years ago.

Community members were not happy that the sales tax applied only to Brown County, but, ironically, that might have worked to its favor. As a result, county leaders insisted the stadium board be made up entirely of local members and it be allowed to make its own investment decisions, without interference from state government.

"It was one of those things that everything came together almost perfectly," Webb said. "It allowed us to do things to cut the cost of our debt down and have the ability to pay off our debt as soon as we had money available." 

The state Legislature was excited about the Brown County-only deal because it would save it from the controversy surrounding the earlier vote to fund Miller Park with a regional sales tax, which resulted in a state senator from Racine being recalled.

Jadin, however, wasn't happy about it.

"I was very angry about that, honestly, but having the county foot the whole bill was a blessing in disguise," he said. "Is the project worth what we paid?  Absolutely. Would it have been nice to have $50 million from other sources? I still think it would have."

In addition to the extra money the renovated stadium allowed the Packers to generate for themselves, the team provides an economic impact to the community of more than $160 million annually, including an estimated $15 million per game.

In today's NFL, facility upgrades are a constant, and the Packers are well-positioned to continue to keep pace. 

"We are going to continue to invest in our football facilities, especially those we think give us a competitive advantage," Murphy said. "We're looking at not just other NFL teams, but what colleges are doing, making sure we continue to have state-of-the-art facilities. We made a pretty big investment probably four or five years ago with the new weight room and the dining area. We are looking at other things we could do."

The benefits are not all physical. Murphy said the team's financial growth allowed it to make substantial contributions to the Packers Foundation, which now has $50 million, and to the corporate reserve fund, the team's savings account.

LAMBEAU PROGRESS: This aerial photo taken Aug. 31, 2001, shows the progress of the Lambeau Field renovation. The $295 million project, added luxury boxes, additional bowl seating, an atrium and new offices. It was completed in 2003.

"I think from a charitable standpoint, we are doing much more than we did in the past," Murphy said. "Given our ownership structure, I’ve always felt like it’s at the core of what we are doing. We need to give back to the community."

On Monday, the Packers announced grants of $1 million to 237 civic and charitable organizations in Wisconsin. Earlier in the year, the team and foundation made $500,000 in COVID-19 relief donations, in addition to other giving. All told, Packers organizations made $4 million in donations in 2020. 

Contact Richard Ryman at (920) 431-8342 or rryman@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RichRymanPG, on Instagram at  @rrymanPG or  on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RichardRymanPG/