After 15 years, Brown County Lambeau Field sales tax expires tonight

File photo (WLUK/Scott Hurley)

GREEN BAY - Fifteen years and more than $300 million later, the tax used to upgrade and renovate Lambeau Field will expire at midnight Wednesday.

The Brown County Stadium District Tax levied a 0.5 percent sales tax on virtually anything purchased in the county since early 2001, bringing in an average of $20 million a year since.

"It's had a huge economic impact in this community," said Bob Harlan, the former president of the Green Bay Packers, who also championed the need of the tax, frequently went door-to-door to talk to voters.

"We used to be open ten days a year. Just think of that! Now we're open every day of the year. It's enormous."

Voters approved the tax 53-47 percent in September 2000. More than $300.3 million has been collected since, paying for the initial renovation project, plus funding stadium operations and maintenance into 2031. Three other stadium renovation projects - the south end zone addition, the atrium remodeling and now upgrades to the luxury suites - were paid for by the team and did not use tax dollars.

Despite retiring in 2008, Harlan - who is now the team's chairman emeritus - still has an office in the stadium that he uses on weekends only. After the Packers' 1997 Super Bowl XXXI win, Harlan says he knew the team needed to plan for the future, as new stadiums across the country helped other sports teams increase their revenue.

Now, Lambeau Field is more than just a game day stadium, but a year-round revenue generator through tours, its restaurant, pro-shop and private events.

"I did think it was going to be a success, for several reasons," said Harlan.

"We told the voters, you give us this stadium. It's going to help us keep a competitive team on the field, it's going to keep Green Bay a viable part of the National Football League for decades to come, and it's going to stabilize the financial future of this franchise."

But at what cost? At the time the tax was being proposed, taxpayers groups were vehemently opposed to it - using public dollars for a private business; no matter that the team is the only NFL franchise that is "publicly" owned.

One of those groups was the Brown County Taxpayers Association.

"Was it a success?" I asked association president Richard Parins, who opposed the tax.

"By whose measure? By theirs, yes. Absolutely," said Parins. "I think the community actually, probably, came out okay as well."

Parins says no one will fault or deny that the changes made to the stadium have been a big improvement and helped the team solidify its place in the NFL.

"It's done and over, we're happy to see it finished," said Parins.

But there will be some left over money as a part of the tax collections - more than $17 million. A bill is currently moving through the statehouse that would send 25 percent of that money back to Brown County, with the rest going to the county's towns and municipalities, based on population size. For example, Green Bay would receive $5.45 million; De Pere: $1.26 million.

Parins says that's a good thing, but he has some qualms about the money being earmarked for specific uses.

"We would be in agreement with about 95 percent of it. Except we don't really think the bill should put restrictions on the communities and how they spend their money."

The sponsor of the bill, State Rep. David Steffen, R-Howard, hopes to have a vote on the bill next month and, hopefully, signed into law within the year.

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