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Report: Milwaukee Cultural Institutions Need $310 Million for Improvements

Metro Milwaukee's parks, recreational and cultural institutions need a combined $310 million for repairs or upgrades, according to the Public Policy Forum.

Credit Public Policy Forum

The PPF analyzed the fiscal health of 17 public and private assets, including the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Rob Henken, president of the non-partisan forum, says some challenges are the result of unsustainable business models. Milwaukee County arts and park assets face considerable infrastructure needs, but Henken says, ironically, they are strained because county leaders prudently decided a decade ago to refinance the county’s long-term debt and reduce borrowing.

The key findings in the report include:

  • About 64 percent of the $310 million in capital needs identified in the report would be for major upgrades or projects like new facilities. The report says basic versus major needs is an important distinction when allocating money.
  • Milwaukee County-owned facilities and parks have "immense" capital needs over the next five years, but the report says it is "highly questionable" whether the County can meet them.
  • Capital needs are more urgent than operating needs, though the report says both the parks and the Milwaukee County Zoo could benefit from more County support for operating costs.
  • The report offers no opinion on whether Milwaukee should build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, but it says should the team leave in 2017 when its lease is up, the BMO Harris Bradley Center would face an uncertain future. The Bradley Center and Wisconsin Center District, which have a combination of public and private funding sources, have experienced severe operating budget challenges during the past five years.
  • Five of the six privately-owned organizations analyzed are in sound financial operating condition. But the report suggests that limited public funding could help them withstand economic swings in revenue and address building maintenance needs.
  • The privately-owned assets have been overall successful in fundraising capital projects, but this may get more difficult in the future as competition from public institutions in need increases.

Henken says this latter finding will continue to be an issue as Milwaukee County looks to private and philanthropic dollars to fund the basic maintenance holes for many of its aging buildings.
"So the question is, is there enough capacity in our philanthropic community to take care of these needs and if not, what are we going to do about that?" he says, adding, "Where it gets more difficult is trying to convince private donors to make up for the county’s inability to take care of HVAC systems, roofs, and facades."

The Public Policy Forum plans to release a second study within months, featuring approaches the region might pursue for retaining quality-of-life assets.

You can find the Forum's full report of Milwaukee's arts, cultural, recreational and entertainment assets here.

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich talks with the Public Policy Forum's Rob Henken about capital needs for Milwaukee institutions.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.