Milwaukee’s crumbling cultural assets

Funding solution needed for regional attractions

Last updated on February 7th, 2020 at 11:51 am

Fueled by a booming local economy, the mid-20th century brought a flurry of civic building activity for Milwaukee County.

In 1957, the Milwaukee County War Memorial – an Eero Saarinen cast-concrete structure overlooking the shores of Lake Michigan – was completed. The following year, the county zoo moved from Washington Park to a much larger home, its current 200-acre park on Milwaukee’s far west side.

Construction on the Milwaukee Public Museum’s current facility, the large concrete structure on West Wells Street in the city’s downtown, was completed in 1962. The county took over the Villa Terrace in 1966, the same year work began on the county-owned Marcus Performing Arts Center. And throughout that era, the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory’s iconic glass domes were constructed, with the trio’s completion in 1967.  

In the decades since, the buildings have served as popular regional attractions, hosting streams of students, families and out-of-towners. But funding constraints have led to deferred capital maintenance needs at many of the institutions, and what was once a building boom has, a half century later, left the cash-strapped county with a building burden.

Facing a host of facility issues, MPM is at risk of losing its accreditation when it is up for review next year, which would make it the largest museum in the U.S. to let that designation slip. The future of the dilapidated Mitchell Park Domes remains uncertain amid continuing debate over whether to demolish, rebuild or repair them. And the backlog of repair and replacement needs across Milwaukee County’s facilities, including its cultural institutions and parks, has been deemed “seemingly insurmountable” by a recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

These challenges aren’t new. But, amid an intensifying talent war and the momentum of the recent downtown building boom, decisions about the cultural assets are now at a critical juncture. To be competitive, the region needs to invest in the institutions that make it distinctive, local leaders say.

“You’re not going to look around the world at any great thriving, successful metropolis and not recognize it has a vibrant cultural arts and entertainment scene,” said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “You can’t find a vibrant community that doesn’t have vibrant culture.”

Mounting needs

The mounting capital needs of Milwaukee County’s cultural assets have been well documented and publicized for years.

The Public Policy Forum released a report in 2008 that highlighted the problem of declining public funding and tallied Milwaukee County parks and cultural institutions’ need for capital improvement spending at $277 million.   

The issue again came into the spotlight in 2015, when an MMAC task force, made up of 50 key community and business leaders, concluded that more government money was needed to protect the region’s signature cultural and entertainment assets.

“That part of the task force was to establish a vision for what Milwaukee could look like with a strategy to invest in these assets as we go forward,” Sheehy said. “The flip side of that is, what would Milwaukee look like without these assets?”

But those conversations were eclipsed by another challenge: funding a new NBA arena to replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center. That challenge presented the community with an imminent threat: without a funding solution, the Milwaukee Bucks could leave town.

“In that case, the math was easier to wrap your head around,” Sheehy said. “The (state income taxes paid by) the team and visiting players was around $10 million a year. If we lost the team, the state would lose $10 million in income tax revenue. If you kept the team by building a new arena, payroll would grow (and state income taxes paid by NBA players was projected to increase to) somewhere between $10 million and $18 million (annually). And if you use incremental new revenue from the income tax to support the bonds, the state isn’t really losing anything.”

Ultimately, that led to a public-private financing plan for the arena, with state and local taxpayers kicking in $250 million for construction of what would become Fiserv Forum. 

While most agree cultural assets play an important role in the community, the urgency related to their financing needs presents a more challenging public messaging strategy than for a venue for popular sports teams.

“It’s harder to make that connection because the zoo isn’t going to move to Cincinnati,” Sheehy said. “The threat is less evident and obvious.”

In 2016, Sheehy floated the idea of a 0.5 percent sales tax to help fund the region’s cultural and arts institutions, but the proposal didn’t find much traction beyond Milwaukee County’s borders. Officials in its neighboring counties generally found the idea unpalatable.

Today, a financing strategy for the region’s cultural institutions remains at a standstill.

“Where we sit today is with the same challenge,” Sheehy said. “We’re disinvesting or underinvesting in critical assets, and they need to be part of any new funding solution going forward.”

The Domes

Mitchell Park Domes
Credit: Henryk Sadura /

The need for a solution to the aging Mitchell Park Domes has loomed for years. But when concrete chunks began to crumble in 2016, it prompted immediate safety concerns, along with more serious discussions about the fate of the structures.

Today, their future remains uncertain.

A county task force charged with helping determine the Domes’ future has named several options, ranging from keeping them on hospice care until they expire in about five years, to investing as much as $90 million to give them new life.

That task force is currently considering the use of historic tax credits to address deferred maintenance, which is estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million.

Meanwhile, a separate proposal has been floated that would link the Domes’ future with that of another high-priority project: a new Milwaukee Public Museum.

National design firm Gallagher Museum Services recently recommended that the county demolish the Domes and integrate the horticultural experience into a new 284,000-square-foot Milwaukee Public Museum building on the site of the current Domes, to the tune of about $267 million. Factoring in an endowment, the project would require an estimated total capital raise of $300 million.

However, based on the Gallagher study, interim MPM president and chief executive officer Ellen Censky recently said that co-locating the Domes and MPM “is not feasible” because it would require demolition of the Domes.

“To us, that’s something that won’t work,” Censky said.

Milwaukee Public Museum

Photos Contributed by: The Refinery

Meanwhile, MPM is still in the process of identifying a location for its planned new downtown home.

When it opened in 1884 as a free public museum, MPM was innovative for its time, Censky said. The museum stood apart from many of its contemporaries, which enjoyed the backing of wealthy benefactors, such as Marshall Field’s support for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

“This museum and others have helped to shape this community,” Censky said. “We’re not just something that’s nice to have; I think we have been integral to how this community has developed. It became something that was for everybody and, because of that, we all got trained on going to museums. We actually are a much more museum-going community than a lot of communities because this community takes ownership of this museum.”

The second most-visited cultural institution in the county (behind the zoo), MPM last year saw about 535,000 visitors, about 14 percent of whom were from out-of-state.

But the building that MPM has called home for nearly six decades faces serious challenges. Old pipes have burst, causing damage to collections. Rainstorms lead to leaks. The basement has mold issues. The outdated elevators need costly repairs.

In all, the museum faces an estimated $87 million in deferred maintenance projected over the next 20 years, Censky said.

“That’s just to keep the doors open so people can safely walk into the building,” Censky said. “We spend about $1.5 million in utilities and most of it goes out the windows. It’s a building that has not aged gracefully, so to put that kind of money into this building, that’s money we can’t spend on new exhibits, updated technology, research and education programs. Every time we spend money on this building to fix something, we spend time away from what we should be doing.”

Leaders plan to build a considerably smaller facility than the museum’s current 400,000-square-foot building at 800 W. Wells St., one that is more energy efficient and able to accommodate changes in exhibits. Several sites remain under consideration, Censky said. An estimate of $100 million for a new facility has been floated in the past, but museum officials declined to discuss cost estimates at this point. The launch of a capital campaign to support the new home, Censky said, is also far off.

Building for the future

Marcus Performing Arts Center

Meanwhile, other county-owned institutions with less pressing capital needs are undergoing renovations to ensure their long-term sustainability.

Marcus Center leaders unveiled in late 2018 a new campus master plan in an effort to “secure its vitality for the next 50 years.” The revamp, expected to be completed over the next five years, includes creating a park-like setting in front of the Peck Pavilion, an expanded plaza, and a flexible-use lawn for outdoor events, along with a host of interior renovations and theater upgrades.

Marcus Center president and chief executive officer Paul Mathews said the renovations – paired with The Marcus Corp.’s  new Saint Kate Arts Hotel concept across the street – will help create a multi-block “cultural arts center” in Milwaukee’s downtown.

Mathews has also proposed that MPM and Betty Brinn Children’s Museum relocate to the site of the center’s parking structure northwest of East State and North Water streets. That idea, among others, is “under consideration,” Censky said.

Underway at the Milwaukee County Zoo is a project that, when completed, will be the largest-ever physical change to its current location.

The multi-year Adventure Africa project includes an elephant exhibit, set to open in May, along with future improvements to the hippo and rhino exhibits. Zoo leaders expect the new elephant home to draw more visitors to the area, with Indianapolis being the next-closest accredited zoo exhibiting elephants.

The zoo supplements public funding with matching contributions from private sources, aided by nonprofit fundraising organization Zoological Society of Milwaukee County. The Zoo Society has committed to raising $25 million to fund the project.

To date, $18.3 million has been raised for the campaign.

Among several corporate supporters of the project is the We Energies Foundation, the charitable arm of Milwaukee-based WEC Energy Group Inc., which gave $750,000 for a second-floor viewing terrace at the new elephant and hoofstock exhibits. The gift was one of the foundation’s several recent gifts, including gifts to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Ballet, Discovery World and MPM.

Beth Straka, vice president of the foundation, said arts and culture have consistently been a high priority for the foundation’s investments.

“We’re one of largest employers in the region; we know how important it is to attract and retain a high-quality workforce,” Straka said. “Having a thriving and diverse cultural scene plays an important role in creating a community where people want to work and live and raise their families.”

Success stories

Some cultural organizations in the region have proven that bold projects, with heavy fundraising lifts, can be done successfully.

The Quadracci Pavilion, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s 142,000-square-foot addition in 2001, and the outstretched wings of the Burke Brise Soleil sculpture, stand as a testament to the philanthropic community rallying behind an ambitious project.

The project grew from a planned modest addition, with a $10 million lead – at the time, anonymous – gift from Betty and Harry Quadracci, to a much larger and more expensive undertaking when Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was chosen for the project.

When it opened, the expansion cost a reported $122 million, far exceeding the original estimate of $38 million.

The key to that project’s success was the invested involvement of the MAM board, philanthropists and Calatrava throughout the process, said Amanda Peterson, senior director of audience engagement for the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“When Calatrava would come back with revisions, he would say, ‘Well, it will be X more dollars, but I can make it do this,’” Peterson said. “So it went over the original budget, but it never went over the donors’ budget. The board always had that guiding star of this is what we’re doing and want to accomplish … It wasn’t a museum demanding we do this or the donors demanding that we do this, but the board served as a steering committee of what could be.”

The project’s ability to inspire the community helped drive it forward and ultimately receive the philanthropic support it needed, Peterson said.

“The Quadracci Pavillion and Burke Brise Soleil are so iconic, not just for the city, but as a symbol of the growth and revitalization of Milwaukee,” Peterson said. “…Knowing what it’s done for us, we’re really excited to see our partners turn things around.”

Today, one of MAM’s partners, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, is well on its way to completing its fundraising goal for its new home. Like the art museum, the project was kickstarted by an anonymous patron donor, who led the MSO’s initiative to buy the vacant Warner Grand Theatre and convert it into its new concert hall.

To date, MSO has raised more than $115 million toward its $139 million campaign goal to restore the 87-year-old Art Deco-style theater, along with the building’s 12-story office tower. Leaders said work is on schedule to open the Milwaukee Symphony Center for its first concert in September 2020.

A funding crisis

While philanthropy will certainly play an important role in funding the region’s cultural assets, it won’t completely fill the gap, leaders say.

According to a 2018 Wisconsin Policy Forum report, Milwaukee County would need to more than double its spending on cultural institutions, from $6.2 million to $13.9 million, and increase spending nearly tenfold on parks, from $2.4 million to $23 million, in 2019 alone to fund existing capital requests.

Amid daunting infrastructure needs and stagnant revenue streams, local leaders argue their hands are tied, in large part because of the imbalance between what the county sends to Madison in tax revenue and what the county receives in state support for its mandated services.

As county expenses have increased, reimbursement payments to the county – including general transportation aids, basic community aids, shared revenue and mass transit operating assistance – have remained stagnant since 2010, according to documents provided by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s office.

“It won’t matter who’s in this office or who’s downstairs (on the county board), it’s just math,” said Abele. “With declining resources and growing costs, it’s going to get ugly … Until we solve this issue as a state, we’ll have a lot more than our cultural assets to worry about.”

After cutting county parks positions, moving out of “1 million square feet of office space,” and adding new revenue streams like the county beer gardens, Abele said the county is left with few financial options. Milwaukee already relies heavily on property taxes, compared with its peers nationally; any proposal to raise them would likely be a nonstarter. A sales tax, while on the table as an option for the county, can’t be imposed without the approval of the state Legislature.

“There has been some discussion around this,” Sheehy said. “But we would need to partner with the city and county. We’d need to make a convincing case to the Legislature. We would need a referendum and need to make a convincing case on the referendum. There are a lot of steps to this theoretical exercise of adding a sales tax in Milwaukee County. There’s no firm proposal to do that right now, but clearly it’s one of the options that the community should consider.”

Several suburban Republican state lawmakers declined to comment for this story.

Even if the county were to address the shared revenue issue, Abele said, cultural assets are lower on the queue of funding priorities, behind mandated services like public safety and building a new courthouse.

But, after ringing the alarm for years, Abele said he is optimistic, noting that Gov. Tony Evers is the first governor in recent memory that he’s heard mention the funding issues in Milwaukee County.

“I think there is more awareness now among the right, left, advocacy and business community – people see this as an issue,” Abele said. “There has been discussion in the past about a cultural sales tax, but what’s different is you haven’t had as much buy-in as you do now from, in particular, the business community.”

Abele – who also wears hats as a local startup supporter, philanthropist and former board member for the MSO, Marcus Center, United Performing Arts Fund and Milwaukee Art Museum – said businesses have drawn the connection between their battle for talent and having a thriving cultural and entertainment scene. Big employers, he said, leverage those assets to attract employees here.

“That doesn’t work if we can’t even fund what essentially makes it vibrant,” Abele said.

While the MMAC’s previous campaign didn’t result in a funding solution for cultural assets, Sheehy said he knew they were long-term challenges when they took them on. He didn’t expect them to be solved immediately.

But, he added, the successful arena financing effort did showcase the region’s ability to coalesce around a goal.

“We’ve clearly demonstrated that, when we have a crisis, we can act,” he said.

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