Lambeau Field: Renovation Referendum Revisited
By Chris Wood
It has been over 15 years since the referendum that approved an additional half percent sales tax from Brown County residents for the renovation of Lambeau Field was passed.
The plan narrowly received voters’ approval to proceed by a 53-to-47 percent margin and the rest – as they say – is history! The tax was put in place and due to expire after 15 years, when the necessary $160 million portion of the $295 million project was expected to have been raised, which happened last fall.
One of the side effects of being a collector is that you end up accumulating “related stuff” in whatever area your collector’s passion resides. I was reminded of that a couple weeks ago while going through some things in my basement (or “the archives,” as I like to refer to it, because I’m a record collector as well).
I came across an envelope full of items that had been part of the effort to get the referendum approved by “Team Lambeau.” It included fliers, brochures, bumper stickers, door hangers, newspaper articles and other information that was put out by or was a result of the Team Lambeau effort. “Team Lambeau” was the somewhat informal name of the group organized by the Packers’ political action committee, the “Friends of Lambeau Field” to mount the campaign to get the referendum passed in the fall of 2000. The referendum was all about whether or not the taxpayers of Brown County were willing to accept a 0.5 % additional sales tax for 15 years to help pay for the $295 million plan for renovating the stadium. When Team Lambeau had put out the call for volunteers to help publicize the benefits of renovating the stadium, not only for the Packers and the City of Green Bay, but also residents of the entire county, I felt compelled to go over to their office on Waube Lane and sign up.
It was time to not only stand up and salute and be counted, but also to be able to be counted on to really do something to help the case for the cause! The way it sounded coming from the Green Bay Packers organization, when it came to approving the referendum which would dramatically improve Lambeau Field and its ability to generate income 365 days a year, it was either do or die – this was it! If it didn’t pass, it was simply just a matter of time before the Packers would cease to exist as we have known them; the only publicly-owned team in the league – or any league, for that matter – and in the smallest city (by far) in the league – or any league, for that matter!
For starters, I obtained a yard sign encouraging people to “Vote Yes” on Sept. 12 because I hadn’t seen any of them in our neighborhood over near Preble Park. I also agreed to take a bunch of signs with me and see if I could convince some of my neighbors to do likewise. The next day was Sunday, so I corralled my two boys, Ryan and Brenden ages six and almost two, respectively, to join me in forming the “Team Lambeau Sign Brigade.” I piled them into our wagon with a bunch of the signs and we set out to see what we could do.
It wasn’t going to be a slam-dunk by any means, as far as eliciting support for the referendum, because it was considered by many to be the most controversial issue ever faced by Brown County voters. People were either very much in favor of it or very much opposed to it – there was no middle ground!
There were a lot of people who weren’t season ticket holders and didn’t have access to someone who was willing to sell them the tickets for face value. Additionally, if they weren’t employed by a business that would be positively impacted by the referendum passing, it usually resulted in a “Why should I?” type of attitude, as we soon found out.
The opposition forces were mounting a serious and well-funded effort to defeat the initiative. There were three groups opposed to it; one which called itself the “Save Lambeau–Vote NO” group, the second being The Brown County Taxpayers Association and the third, The Citizens for Sensible Taxation.
In approaching some of the homes in our neighborhood whose residents I didn’t know about taking a sign, I had prepared a little pitch spelling out the basics of the plan. After presenting it to one or both of the adults in the household, I would answer any questions they had about it. My closing line was something like: “I don’t know what your politics are on this issue but we have these very attractive yard signs…” at which time they’d usually start shaking their heads to say: “No, thank you!”
Not missing a beat, I would very quickly add “which are sure to become collector’s items in the not-too-distant future,” which was generally enough to turn the “No” into a “Well, I guess so,” response. At any rate, soon enough we were able to place all 10 of the signs at homes throughout the neighborhood.
Several days later with just a week remaining until the vote, I went back to headquarters to get a few more signs because it appeared it was going to be very close and “go down to the wire.” I stopped by on my way home from work one evening and Debbie, who was the very personable and vivacious person I had dealt with previously, told me she had a request.
“Chris,” she said sweetly, “would you please canvass just one route for us? We have to get this done by the weekend and we really need the help!”
It was a door-to-door effort similar to those used in political campaigns designed to find out where people stood on the issue and whether or not they needed a ride to the polls to vote on decision day, or “D-day.”
“Deb,” I said, “I quit the door-to-door stuff a long time ago, like way back when George McGovern was running for President! It’s a young man’s game and I’m just too old to do it anymore, so you need to find someone else!”
“Well, we’ve been trying really hard but we just haven’t been able to get people willing to do it,” she said disdainfully, “and now it’s getting down to the wire and we have so many left to do! You know how important this is and how close it’s going to be; plus you have the experience of having done it before! Please,” she pleaded, “would you just do one route?”
I thought about it for a minute and said: “Okay, I’ll tell you what; if you can give me a route that starts out at my door and finishes up there, too, I’ll do it!”
I thought that was pretty safe because as far as I knew from past experience, no routes were ever put together that way!
“Okay!” she replied. “Let me go try to work this out and see what we can do, but I’m pretty sure we can find a way” and with that, she disappeared into the back room.
She returned five minutes later with the newly-formed route paperwork in hand and instructions on what to say and how to proceed, as well as some door hangers to leave behind at the houses of people who weren’t home.
As I added these items to the additional yard signs I had grabbed and prepared to leave, a guy who looked to be about my age came up from behind. I’d seen him out of the corner of my eye while I was standing there waiting and figured he was probably with the Press-Gazette or some other local news entity, since he had a reporter’s notebook in hand and had been jotting things down.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m Pat Doyle with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and I’m doing a story on the referendum. I was wondering if I could go along with you when you do your canvassing route.” He’d obviously overheard our conversation and knew what was up.
“Well, sure, I guess so,” I said. “But I’m going out to do it tonight.”
He said that would work out fine for him because not having to wait until tomorrow was all the better and he’d be ready to go do it whenever I was. I called my wife on the way home and asked her to set an extra place at the table for dinner.
He followed me home and we had a quick dinner, planning to get started right after that. After the first couple of homes where he just watched and listened off to the side, he was ready to jump in. I would walk up to the door, give what was by now a pretty well-rehearsed pitch and then he would step forward to introduce himself and ask a few questions.
We heard from quite a few people who expressed their opposition to the referendum because of never having ever been to a game, much less having any means by which to secure tickets to a game. They had no real personal connection, much less allegiance to the team; as well as having concerns about how expensive it had all become.
At one house, my companion asked the elderly gentleman who answered the door how he was going to vote, to which he replied with a very adamant, “Hell, no!” He went on to say something about “those babies” who should be paying for a “bigger, better playpen” out of their own pockets (because unlike us, they could afford it) and suggesting too, that “if they really wanted to,” the Packers could come up with the money for it themselves.
“But if that’s the way you feel about it, then why do you have that sign up over there!” asked the reporter, with some surprise, pointing to the yard sign.
“Because of him!” the man in the doorway answered, shaking his finger at me. “It’s all his fault!”
We had a good laugh over it before we had to move on to the next home. It proved to be an interesting evening to say the least and the story ran the following Monday morning on the front page of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the day before the vote. It was a well-written, thoroughly-researched piece complete with a photograph of Bob Harlan making his “case for the cause” going door-to-door.
In the meantime, the locally-owned second paper in town – The Green Bay News-Chronicle – had put out one of its finest editions ever just five days before the vote. It was comprised of a lusty 80 pages, which was unusually large for a Thursday edition and had an impressive “thud-factor” when it landed on local doorsteps. It was chock-full of information examining all sides of the issue with incisive writing and reporting; giving way to spirited discussion and consideration of the referendum issue in many quarters. As the Star-Trib article put it in one of their story sub-heads, Green Bay had become “A City Divided” over the issue.
That proved to be very true and I saw it in my workplace as well as within my own family. From the get-go, publisher Frank Wood (my father) was adamantly against it and that attitude had seemingly rubbed off on most of the editorial staff. Editor Tom Brooker felt the same way and the two of them along with cartoonist Lyle Lahey comprised the editorial voice of the newspaper. However, I made no bones about the fact that I was completely and totally in favor of it, and so was asked to write an editorial piece explaining why I felt that way to counter their opposition to it.
The three of us, along with several other members of the News-Chronicle editorial staff, had the opportunity to participate in a lively interview exchange a week before the vote with Bob Harlan and John Jones, the then senior vice president of administration for the Packers.
Dad’s editorial ran on page 5 with the header reading: ‘Packers need community’s help but not this way.’
He had issues with how it was being done, saying it “was foisted on us by the governor and the state Legislature” as well as questioning why county taxpayers should be paying for a stadium owned by the city. He also suggested it could be done less expensively and that there were still too many unanswered questions.
Meanwhile, my piece was buried on page 18, with the headline: ‘Thank you, Green Bay Packers!’
In it, I thanked them for all of the joy they had brought us over the years of playing great football (well, most of the time anyway!), as well as the very considerable economic benefits their presence brought to our fair city in a multitude of ways and in many different areas. After briefly considering the points of the opposition, I reiterated my position that we should wholeheartedly support the referendum. The Packers deserved the opportunity to do it in their preferred way, I argued, as a thank you for all that they have done for us over the years.
The two opposing viewpoints coming on the editorial pages of the same newspaper from members of the same family garnered enough attention to be the main topic of discussion on one of the primary Milwaukee radio station’s morning talk show the day before the vote. We heard plenty about it around town here as well, but the most important and best thing about it was we agreed to disagree!
In retrospect, it’s safe to say the renovation of Lambeau Field has been the hugest of successes; even more so than anybody ever could have imagined or hoped for! Green Bay is now a destination city for many, who have it on their “bucket lists.” It is known as one of the main places where the sport of football was nurtured from its infancy until it came into its own in the ’30s and then became an American Sunday institution in the ’60s.
Before the referendum vote in 2000, Bob Harlan had said the renovated stadium would generate an additional $20 million annually in local revenue. Looking back, the final year of the pre-renovated Lambeau Field which was the 2002-03 season, the local revenue figure was $60.5 million, according to Richard Ryman of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Fast-forward 10 years and we see this compares to the 2013 season figure of $136.4 million, which was before (and therefore didn’t include) the new south endzone generated revenue. The bottom line is, these numbers bring new meaning to the phrase “far exceeding expectations!”
With all of the history that took place here in the early days, from 1919 on through the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s and then exploded with the Lombardi years in the ’60s, we now have a world-class Hall of Fame for visitors from around the world to experience it for the first time and then relive it when they’re so moved to return. It is truly amazing how many people keep coming back, time and time again! It doesn’t seem to ever grow old and there’s always more to see on another visit, which has done nothing but enhance the attraction of Green Bay as one of the most appealing sports destinations anywhere.
With “the Lambeau experience” of watching a game here, now consistently being rated as the best game-day experience in the National Football League, Green Bay is recognized as the smallest town that is home to a professional sports franchise anywhere, as well as the most unique professional sports franchise in the world!
To put it succinctly:
From Lambeau to Lombardi,
And all of the rest;
The Packer tradition,
Is simply the best!
Yes, the Packer tradition,
Is simply the best!