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Milwaukee Parks Foundation Wants Parks To Not Just Survive, But To Thrive

Susan Bence
(From left) May yer Thao, Guy Smith, and Demetria Smith say the new Milwaukee Parks Foundation aims to be successful raising funds and inspiring creative programs for Milwaukee County's park system.

Milwaukee County Parks is rich in green space — 157 parks and a total of more than 15,300 acres of green space — but less well off when it comes to funding. The system has $362,000 more in tax levy in 2020 than was allotted in 2019, but over the past decade the parks department has reduced tax levy funding and has turned to direct revenue to fill in the gap.

There's still an elephant in the room, according to Milwaukee County Parks Executive Director Guy Smith. "We face a vast funding gap ... about $300 million in deferred maintenance," he says.

READ: Milwaukee County Beer Gardens Bring In Money, More Visitor To The Parks

Guy Smith calls the creation of the Milwaukee Parks Foundation a tremendous opportunity to fill in the financial gap.

"All over the nation major parks systems have foundations," Guy Smith says. That includes parks systems in Madison, Dane County, Austin, and Seattle.

Guy Smith says Milwaukee Parks Foundation's 13-member board is representative of the county and includes private businesses, nonprofits, government.

Demetria Smith will serve as the board's vice chair.  Her day job is as senior director of programs with PEAK Initiative.

"I'm on the board as an independent part of my passion. But my organization is also a partner with Milwaukee County Parks because we’re actually in one of the parks, so it’s both a personal passion and I’m in a park every day," Demetria Smith says. 

Milwaukee County has 157 parks and more than 15,300 acres of green space.

PEAK Initiative is a youth-serving organization headquartered in Tiefentaler Park at 25th and Cherry streets. "The majority of our programs, our offices are right there, so we get to see how a park runs every day,” Demetria Smith explains.

She says parks are vital to residents' lives.

"When we are putting attention and resources and effort into making parks enjoyable for all ages in all kinds of ways, we are doing so much for the community in ways we might not even know how people are using that resource,” she says.

Demetria Smith admits she gets emotional about the topic. "That’s a big reason I’m on the board because I don’t think people understand how important it is," she explains.

May yer Thao, who will serve as the new board's secretary, agrees.

"When I was first approached about sitting on the board, I was still working with the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce ... the passion comes from how our community use these parks as a place to gather, to celebrate with friends and family and it's a safe place for them to do that," Thao says.

The board will work to create a parks endowment and already has a head start toward that goal.

"How innovative, how creative, how much more fun can we create within our parks system?" - May yer Thao

Last year, a Greater Milwaukee Foundation fund decided to supplement existing park funding. That campaign raised $100,000 and spurred the formation of the Milwaukee Parks Foundation. The foundation board will have a voice in how funds are allocated.

“I think the dream is, after prioritizing and after the money flows in," Thao says. "It’s really being able to dream about what we can do with our parks — how innovative, how creative, how much more fun can we create within our parks system?"

Thao says her 11- and 9-year-old children would love swing parks and more interactive playgrounds.

"I'm not very educated about environmental issues, so to be able incorporate education more with our young folks and people like me who don’t have a sound understanding of the environment, to be able to tie that in in such a fun way [that we] don’t even know we’re learning," Thao says.

Demetria Smith says a lot can be accomplished without spending vast amounts of money. "Small tweaks in the parks that would make it more enjoyable for folks like a water fountain, a park bench, a place to gather," she says.

Thao thinks the group share a key attribute: being change agents. "Just yesterday we had a meeting, and so many ideas came forth ... That’s what it’s all about, how can we all together as a team bring forth ... resources that we have to make something happen?" Thao says.

Guy Smith says the group wants parks to not simply survive, but to thrive.

"Personally, I’m inspired when I come out of these meetings because it reminds me why I work for parks and always done this parks stuff. Because look, all of these folks are donating their time. They all have day jobs and they’re excited to be here," Guy Smith says. "It's really pretty awesome."

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.