The Marcus Center’s Uncertain Stage

The future is still cloudy for the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, after the failure of a legislative attempt to clarify the cultural venue’s ownership.

For now, the Marcus Center is still owned by Milwaukee County, as it has been since its opening in 1969. But under the 2015 state law that authorized $250 million in taxpayer money for the Milwaukee Bucks’ new $524 million arena, the Wisconsin Center District is supposed to take over the Marcus Center.

That provision — pushed through by County Executive Chris Abele over the objections of the district board, the Marcus Center, the County Board and Mayor Tom Barrett — has been a source of confusion and uncertainty.

The Wisconsin Center District owns and operates the Wisconsin Center, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Miller High Life Theater, using revenue from a countywide food and beverage sales tax, a countywide rental car tax and city and county hotel taxes. It also will own the new Bucks arena, now under construction and slated to open in September 2018. Abele had argued the Marcus Center transfer would improve coordination among publicly owned venues.

However, the plan quickly ran into financial obstacles. The Marcus Center needs nearly $10 million in maintenance over the next 10 years, plus an operating subsidy that will total $850,000 next year. County tax dollars cover those costs, but the County Board has decreed that funding must end if the county no longer owns the building. As the district takes on the Bucks arena and ponders convention center expansion, district board members are wary about picking up Marcus Center costs as well.

With that in mind, the district board voted in December 2015 to postpone the takeover until at least 2020. That cleared the way for the County Board to approve a 10-year funding deal with the Marcus Center in March 2016. But it still didn’t provide the certainty the Marcus Center needs to obtain financing for a new mixed-use facility to replace its parking garage. And because it complicated negotiations on a proposed new Marcus Center lease, the Abele administration agreed the ownership change should be dropped, county administrative services director Teig Whaley-Smith told the district board in July.

A provision to repeal the ownership change was incorporated in the Senate Republican Caucus version of the 2017-’19 state budget. But that language wasn’t in the Joint Finance Committee version adopted by both houses of the Legislature.

It’s not clear why the provision was dropped, given the apparent agreement among county officials, the Marcus Center and the district board, which includes representatives of the GOP majority and Democratic minority leadership in both the Senate and the Assembly, and which is chaired by Gov. Scott Walker’s administration secretary, Scott Neitzel. State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), a district board member, said he wasn’t involved in any discussions about the provision during budget deliberations.

Asked about the issue, Neitzel spokesman Steve Michels would say only that the district would work with Marcus Center, local and state officials “to ensure the Marcus Center remains an asset for the community.” The issue is not expected to come up during Friday’s district board meeting, Michels said.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.