Anyone who loves Milwaukee’s performing arts, sports or convention scenes can breathe a sigh of relief. The state Senate approved a bill this week to cancel the planned transfer of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts from the county government to the Wisconsin Center District, dispelling a cloud of uncertainty that had hung over the financial future of both the arts venue and the district’s facilities.
That legislation now heads to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk. Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said her boss would study the measure, but both Marcus Center President Paul Mathews and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), the bill’s chief sponsor, say they expect Walker to sign it into law.
Once that happens, the Marcus Center will be able to sign a long-term lease with the county, Mathews said. That will offer the financial security that lenders need to help fund capital projects, including a possible multi-use development that would replace the center’s parking garage and eventually generate revenue to wean the arts center off county property taxes, he said.
“This will allow us to do more investment in the facility and on the site of our parking garage,” Mathews said. On the programming side, he added, “Now we can book further ahead and provide people the assurance that we’ll be here in the future.”
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele had insisted the district take over the Marcus Center as part of the deal to build a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, which also will be under district management. He pushed that provision through without any local vote or financial study, claiming it would improve coordination among publicly owned downtown venues.
However, the district’s Miller High Life Theatre hasn’t competed against the Marcus Center for shows in recent years. Instead, it seemed Abele was trying to slim down county government by jettisoning major cultural venues, a trend that continued as the Milwaukee Art Museum took ownership of its building and O’Donnell Park, the Milwaukee Public Museum started looking for a new home and a task force began studying the future of the Mitchell Park Domes.
But as Darling said, “It just wasn’t going to work. The convention center (district) didn’t have the capacity to take on any more projects.”
Although the district levies sales, hotel and rental car taxes, its revenue is already committed to building and running the new arena while still operating the theatre, the UWM Panther Arena and the Wisconsin Center. And if they can scrape up any more cash, district officials would want to spend it on expanding the convention center. Taking over the Marcus Center might have meant picking up its county operating subsidy, now $850,000 a year, and major maintenance costs, because the County Board — which was cut out of the arena deal — had vowed to end that funding if the center left county ownership.
With both the district and the Marcus Center balking at the merger, Abele relented. “The county executive appreciates what the Marcus Center has brought to the community, and Milwaukee County will continue to support important arts and culture programming at the Marcus Center,” Abele spokeswoman Carly Wilson said in a written statement after the bill passed.
The measure to cancel the ownership change was originally intended as an amendment to the 2017-’19 state budget, but with so many other budget provisions in play, lawmakers thought this language could stand on its own as a separate bill, said Darling, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. She was right: The bill’s bipartisan array of co-sponsors and approval by both the Assembly and Senate on voice votes amount to the legislative equivalent of a standing ovation for one of the region’s most important performing arts venues.