Virginia Small

WCD Board Says No Twice to Abele

Board won’t take over Marcus Center and won’t form committee to study idea. Might consider by 2020.

By - Dec 18th, 2015 07:06 pm
County Executive Chris Abele speaks as a press conference in 2014. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

County Executive Chris Abele speaks as a press conference in 2014. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

There will be no transfer of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts to the Wisconsin Center District for at least four years. The board of the WCD, a state-chartered entity with taxing and bonding authority, voted unanimously earlier today to put the proposed  transfer on hold until 2020, after the new Milwaukee Bucks arena it must oversee is completely up and running.

The resolution said: “Given the anticipated schedule for completion of the new arena and the time needed for adequate due diligence to be performed, the earliest the District foresees being in a position to act definitively on the proposed transfer is early 2020.”

The board also declined to implement a proposal by County Executive Chris Abele to form a “joint operations committee to study and implement operational improvements, revenue opportunities and limiting duplicate expenditures among the Wisconsin Center, Marcus Center and Visit Milwaukee.” Abele had proposed that in a letter this week to board members of the Wisconsin Center, which also oversees the UWM Panther Arena, convention center and Milwaukee Theatre.

The Marcus Center takeover was Abele’s idea and was added to state legislation which approved funding for the Bucks arena, but WCD board members have not been excited about the idea, nor have Milwaukee County board members, as Urban Milwaukee previously reported.

The WCD board has been advised that they can decline to take over the Marcus Center from Milwaukee County, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The legal opinion came from Danielle Bergner, an attorney for the WCD who until recently was employed by the City of Milwaukee. “It’s ultimately up to this board,” Bergner said. The WCD board had been advised last month by Mike Heifetz, the state’s budget director, that they could not decline the transfer.

Michael Murphy, president of the Milwaukee Common Council and a WCD board member, told Urban Milwaukee that the board “would continue to look at ways to increase efficiencies” among the district’s existing operations, as well as with the Marcus Center. In an email, City Comptroller and WCD board member Martin Matson said the WCD “will continue conversations on operations, but the physical transfer will have to wait until the new arena is built. We will be discussing this at greater length in 2016, but probably not until April or May.”

Abele’s director of administration, Teig Whaley-Smith, told the Journal Sentinel the WCD vote to delay a possible Marcus Center ownership change until at least 2020 “is something we can obviously work with.”

But the decision may still leave the Marcus Center in limbo as to its future plans. The arts center separately owns an adjacent parking facility its leaders would like to raze and rebuild as a taller, mixed-use building. They consider that project crucial to the nonprofit becoming self-sustainable and “weaning” itself from county support. Various preliminary proposals have been discussed for several years according to Supervisor Gerry Broderick,  chair of the county’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee.

Broderick says the county board has urged Abele and the county administration to develop some form of long-term lease with the Marcus, like it has done with the Milwaukee Art Museum and other entities, in order to enable the Marcus Center to pursue the parking lot project. “The Marcus Center needs some assurance about what its future holds in relationship to the county,” Broderick says.

Broderick says he recently sat down with Marcus CEO Paul Mathews and Whaley-Smith and urged the Abele administration to come back with a deal that the board can consider. While the board has continued providing operational support–$900,000 for 2016—it withheld a planned capital expense for $3.4 million for the time being and allocated that money for other capital needs at parks and cultural entities.

The timing of upcoming county elections next April may also play a factor in all this. Broderick has announced his retirement and is one of several supervisors not seeking reelection or who are seeking other offices. Abele is running for reelection and Broderick worries that “foot dragging” on the Marcus Center may continue past the election.

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