Badger Engineers: Meet Mike Duckett, making a mark on Miller Park
While your typical Milwaukee Brewers fan might have a favorite moment to share about a game at Miller Park, Mike Duckett can narrow it down to his favorite time of day.
Duckett, the executive director of the Miller Park Stadium District, says he is enamored with that intersection between the end of his workday and the start of a night game, when he can watch thousands of fans thread into the sprawling ballpark. “I’ll often wait until about 7 p.m. to leave work, and just watch the building load with people,” he says. “My favorite time is when you see the families bringing kids in, some for the very first time, and they’re holding their mom or dad’s hand, looking up and just going, ‘Wow.’ That’s really fun to see them soaking it all in.”
This inside-looking-out perspective perfectly suits Duckett, a 1974 bachelor’s and 1975 master’s degree graduate of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Since Miller Park opened in 2001, Duckett has served as Executive Director of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District and represents the interests of southeastern Wisconsin taxpayers, who own 70 percent of the stadium. He oversees about $2 million per year in capital projects and improvements.
But the satisfaction with helping create a great major league experience in Milwaukee goes deeper for Duckett, who was associated with Miller Park before a single blueprint was drafted. As an engineer with HNTB Associates in the mid-1980s, he participated in a study on the future of the former County Stadium. That pivotal report concluded it would cost nearly as much to give the deteriorating County Stadium a modern facelift as it would to build a new one.
He remained a key consultant with the stadium development through the 1990s, a time of political strife for the project. Things looked rosy in 1994, when state polls showed 70-percent support for a new stadium and the Legislature was poised to create a new sports lottery for its construction. Only one problem: The summer of 1994 brought the major league baseball strike, and with it the fury of fans.
“The referendum went down in flames,” he recalls. “There was so much animosity over the strike and the rich millionaires who can’t get along.”
Following a rocky political road, stadium backers ultimately succeeded in creating a 0.1 percent sales tax in the five adjacent counties to build Miller Park. Duckett was hired in late 1996, prior to the groundbreaking for Miller Park, to manage the complex construction project on behalf of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District as its executive director, the position he still fills today. Miller Park is now one of the great iconic sights while driving into Milwaukee, with its trademark retractable dome roof arcing like wings over the red brick structure.
Over a club sandwich lunch at Friday’s, the in-stadium restaurant overlooking the field, Duckett pointed out some of his favorite features of Miller Park. The open concourse design — allowing a 360-degree ring of unobstructed views from the concourse — was a first and is now one of the hottest trends in professional stadium design.
He pointed to ways the park continues to offer a fresh experience. At the right field foul pole is the new AirTran Landing Zone, an enclosed bullpen sports bar that seats 75 people. And next to the sausage race entrance, a new kids’ play area includes batting cages, speed pitching, photo booths and a bicycle-powered sausage race. Miller Park has also added several group and party areas, including new party skyboxes and the Gehl Club, a unique, upscale group area on the club level with seating for 240 people.
In 2005, Sports Illustrated named Miller Park the No. 1 baseball stadium in America in terms of value for the money. Duckett says it’s no accident. “The Milwaukee market is a little different,” he says. “The old joke was that out of 30 major league baseball markets, Milwaukee ranks No. 32 in market size. They tried to create a more level playing field for fans, so they don’t need a lot of money to come to Miller Park and have a good time.” During the 2009 season, 60 of the 81 home games had some sort of special discount or promotion.
Duckett still encounters the million-dollar question about Miller Park: Are professional sports good for the local economy and worth the public investment? “I’ve always said, being a good Wisconsin boy, that it’s a good barstool argument,” he says. “You can argue long and hard about the benefits and/or costs of professional sports, with valid points supporting either side of the argument.”
From a numbers perspective, economists often fall on both sides of the question. But in the case on the Milwaukee Brewers, the economic benefits to Milwaukee are measurable, with more than 50 percent of all ticket sales coming from outside the five-county region, Duckett says. The fact that Miller Park attracts millions of visitors each year to southeastern Wisconsin is an indisputable economic benefit of the ballpark.
Then there’s the less measurable quality-of-life perspective. “We are a major league city thanks to the Brewers,” Duckett says. “Every night, in every city in America, you can turn on the evening news and hear reports about the Brewers, or the Milwaukee Bucks or the Green Bay Packers. This puts Milwaukee and Wisconsin on a more respected major league level nationally.”
If there is a common theme to Duckett’s engineering career, it would be, simply put, “big-league construction.” His work with Miller Park led to him being tapped as a construction consultant for the Lambeau Field renovation project five years ago, and most recently, he provided assistance on the massive new stadium project for the Minnesota Twins. He has also served as an engineering management consultant on the recently completed Marquette Interchange ($810 million), and the current Highway 41 ($1.5 billion) and Interstate 94 ($1.9 billion) artery overhauls.
Still, the Miller Park work is easily classified as a “dream job,” Duckett says. “There’s something special about baseball. Parents and grandparents teach their youngsters how to play the game, and usually enjoy taking them to their first game,” he says. “In the 1940s, the top three spectator sports in America were baseball, boxing and horse racing. Today it’s baseball, basketball and football. Something about baseball has consistently transcended generations.”