County exploring long-term lease options with Marcus Center

Wisconsin Center District resists taking ownership

The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:32 am

For more than 40 years, the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee has been a community and cultural asset for southeastern Wisconsin. But with millions of dollars of deferred maintenance, including a failing HVAC system and an old roof, it has become a political hot potato that no governing body wants to take ownership of.

The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee
The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee

At the end of last year, the Wisconsin Center District Board unanimously voted to postpone ownership of the Marcus Center until 2020, and got a verbal legal opinion saying they may not have to take over the property at all.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele included $950,000 to support the center in the 2016 Milwaukee County budget and another $3.6 million for capital improvements. The County Board removed the $3.6 million – under the assumption that the Wisconsin Center District would be taking over the facility.

On Tuesday, Paul Matthews, president and chief executive officer of the Marcus Center, asked the County Board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee to reconsider.

Matthews was hoping for a long-term lease agreement with the county and a commitment for a capital improvement operating agreement.

“We’re going to reach a point at the end of the year where our future and our ability to program is in jeopardy,” Matthews said. “We’re at a critical point now that the Wisconsin Center District has acted.”

Matthews also brought up the decade-old idea of a possible mixed-use development project that would demolish the existing parking ramp at the Marcus Center and build offices, housing, retail and a new parking structure.

In order for that to occur, a long-term lease needs to be in place, Matthews said.

“What we want to do is hypothetical, we do not have a developer in hand,” Matthews said. “But a lease is an important part of that.”

The committee voted to direct the county’s comptroller to look into the county’s financial options for capital improvements to the Marcus Center and asked the corporation council for a legal option if it signs a long-term lease agreement with the center, even if the Wisconsin Center District eventually wants to own it.

The Marcus Center was built with private funding in 1969 and deeded to Milwaukee County as a public trust for the preservation and enrichment of the performing arts, including drama, music and dance.

The facility is home to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera, City Ballet Theatre, Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company, Broadway Series, and other performing arts groups.

Before the vote, supervisors Deanna Alexander and Steve Taylor both spoke out against spending taxpayer dollars on the Marcus Center.

“So you are saying you want a capital agreement for us to fix the building – for what? So the Wisconsin Center District takes it?” Taylor said. “I have nothing against you bringing this forward, but I don’t see how anything has changed.”

Supervisor Patricia Jursik said after being hard on the Marcus Center during budget discussions, she believes a long-term lease should be explored, because the center is a cultural asset to the community.

“I am pained by what has happened to the Marcus Center,” Jursik said. “The county executive has left this languish for way too long.”

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