One of the lasting legacies of Sue Black's eight years on the job as director of the Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture was her ability to reach out to the private sector and secure corporate partners to support the park system.
At a time when former County Executive Scott Walker was slashing the department's budget, Black was able to convince companies such as REI, MillerCoors, Kohl's Corp., the Milwaukee Bucks, Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co. Inc., Harley-Davidson Inc., AT&T Inc. and Rockwell Automation Inc. to step forward and become corporate partners with The Park People of Milwaukee Inc., an independent nonprofit organization promoting citizen stewardship of Milwaukee County Parks.
Black convinced MillerCoors to lead the cleanup of Bradford Beach. She convinced Bartolotta's to provide food at county park venues such as Boerner Botanical Gardens. She convinced Starbucks to open a coffeehouse at Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee.
According to Dan Cody, board president of The Park People, Black convinced the corporate partners to donate because the quality of life in Milwaukee is a vital tool for recruiting talent to the city, and a clean, effective public park system is crucial for that quality of life.
"I think she was really effective at that. She really went out and hustled her butt off to get some private money to augment the money that was being cut from her budget," Cody said. "She was a real go-getter in terms of corporations, not only for sponsorships, but for donations."
Cody said the corporate sponsors had absolute confidence that their donations would be put to effective use under Black's leadership of the county parks.
The question now is, with Black's abrupt and mysterious firing by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele on Aug. 16, will the corporate sponsors be less inclined to support the county parks?
Several sponsors declined to comment on that question.
"It's fair to say that with their money they felt very comfortable with Sue at the helm. That's why they opened up their wallets and their checkbooks, so to speak. There is concern. I hope they don't pull back, even though Sue is not here to drive that," Cody said. "Uncertainly is never good for giving, just like investing."
Black told BizTimes she was not given a reason for her dismissal.
"I can't really say anything. It's just shocking," Black said. "I don't think it was deserving. After 10 years, I deserve more. This is home. I love this place. I tried to make it a better place. I live and breathe it."
Abele said he had a reason for firing Black, but he declined to disclose it. Furthermore, Abele said he did not owe anyone any "gossip."
Some speculation arose that the firing stemmed from Black's handling a leasing contract at Crystal Ridge Ski Hill in Franklin, but County Supervisors Patricia Jursik and Gerry Broderick dismissed that theory.
Broderick said Abele was an "amateur" who underestimated the public outcry with the dismissal of Black.
Black has hired high-powered attorney Franklin Gimbel to represent her. Gimbel sent a letter to Abele, demanding that Black be rehired or receive additional compensation. Gimbel said he believes Black may been "wrongly" terminated.