Future of Milwaukee’s cultural assets still needs to be addressed

Commentary

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:13 pm

It is exciting to see the progress on construction of the new arena in downtown Milwaukee. Structural steel is now rising out of the ground for the project, which will be complete in 2018.

The arena, and the other development planned around it, will bring new life to what had been a dead part of downtown Milwaukee. It will ensure the future of the Bucks in Milwaukee, give the Marquette men’s basketball team a top flight facility to show off to recruits and hopefully attract more concerts and other events than the BMO Harris Bradley Center has been able to.

With the arena project moving forward, it’s time to turn our attention to Milwaukee’s other key cultural assets that are in need of investment in order to preserve them for future generations and maintain the region’s quality of life.

This is going to be a huge challenge. The cost to maintain our cultural institutions will be significant.

The future of the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes is in serious doubt. The Domes were closed earlier this year because of falling chunks of concrete. The county made repairs to the Domes and they have been re-opened, but this is seen as just a temporary fix.

A task force was assigned to recommend a long-term plan for The Domes, built in 1967. The recommendations range from a new $15 million conservatory to a $75 million full restoration of the iconic Domes. A mix of public and private funds would be necessary.

The Domes are nice to have in our community, but their attendance pales in comparison to major sports or other more popular cultural institutions in Milwaukee. Is this really where we want to invest public and private dollars?

Bigger picture, last year a task force convened by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce concluded that additional public funding is needed to preserve and protect the region’s signature cultural and entertainment assets, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and the Milwaukee County Zoo.

These are the iconic quality of life cultural institutions of this community, but they were built decades ago and are showing their age.

The MMAC is pushing the need to maintain the region’s cultural and entertainment assets as a key strategy to compete with other regions, nationally and globally, for top talent.

But where is the funding going to come from? A Milwaukee County sales tax increase might be the best bet. Although these are regional attractions enjoyed by many from outlying suburban counties, you can be sure any attempt for a regional cultural amenity tax would be met by huge pushback from the WOW counties. It’s probably a non-starter.

Milwaukee would do well to follow the lead of Oklahoma City, which has made numerous community improvements with sales taxes collected through its Metropolitan Area Projects Plan. OKC has used the program for numerous projects, including: renovation of a performing arts center, a minor league ballpark, an arena, renovations to its fairgrounds, renovations to its convention center, a new library and numerous school improvements.

Future projects planned in Oklahoma City include a streetcar system, a downtown park and a new convention center.

That’s not unlike Milwaukee, which needs to expand its convention center, is planning a major lakefront park project and has started building a downtown streetcar system.

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.