Graham Kilmer

Public Museum Needs $45 Million From County

Without it, private donors may not support plan for new, $240 million museum facility.

By - Dec 2nd, 2021 10:03 am
Milwaukee Public Museum Reef Rendering. Rendering Luci Creative

Milwaukee Public Museum Reef Rendering. Rendering Luci Creative

Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc. (MPM) is asking Milwaukee County for $45 million in taxpayer funding for its planned new facility.

MPM is a non-profit the county has contracted with to operate the museum at 800 W. Wells St. – a building wholly owned by the county – and manage the collections, also owned by the county. In early 2021, three properties at the northeast corner of W. McKinley Ave. and N. 6th St. were acquired for the new museum by a limited liability company affiliated with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC).

The current plans are for a 230,000-square-foot facility. The price tag for the project, including development and the transition of MPM to the new facility, is approximately $240 million; and all signs point to the future rebranding of the museum as the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture (WMNC). The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum would be a tenant in the building, under current plans, occupying approximately 30,000 square feet.

Historic Haymarket Milwaukee, Inc. is the non-profit incorporated to serve as the developer and financier of the project. It is merging with a limited liability company (LLC) created by Milwaukee Development Corporation, itself an affiliate of MMAC, and will spin off to independently manage the project. This new structure, according to MPM, was created to allow the project to go after New Market Tax Credits.

A new report that will be presented to the Milwaukee County Board, put together by Adam Stehly, a project manager in the county’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS), and Katie Sanders, MPM chief planning officer, states that MPM needs a capital contribution of $45 million from the county to serve as a “match to the state funds and catalyze the capital campaign.” MPM reports that private donors will take out their checkbooks if they are assured there is public funding in the project.

The state included $40 million in the latest biennial budget for the new museum project. At the time, MPM CEO Ellen Censky told county supervisors that the funding provided by the state was critical to attracting private funding for a new facility.

The new facility is believed to be desperately needed because of the poor condition of the current building. Recently, when the museum sought re-accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, the organization tabled MPM accreditation, citing the danger to collections posed by the deteriorating building on W. Wells Street. An indication of the building needs, according to MPM, is that the museum has been forced to collect water in buckets leaking through the ceiling during rainstorms.

The plans for the new museum include upgrading a 40,000-square-foot warehouse to meet museum storage conditions for off-site storage of the museum’s collections. It’s estimated this would cost approximately $2.3 million.

Accreditation is critical to the museum’s operations and revenue, because it allows it to host traveling exhibits. The report from DAS and MPM states that traveling exhibits generated $1.2 million in revenue and $1.4 million in memberships in 2020.

The report also says private donors to the museum are beginning to speak up, expressing concern about the museum’s accreditation. “They also frequently note the need for new/refreshed exhibits to maintain relevance, interest and attendance.” What’s more, the report states that MPM has discovered during conversations with donors “that there is not philanthropic support for renovation of the current building.”

If the county contributes $45 million, MPM will still need to undergo a capital campaign for the additional $155 million. The campaign has not yet gone public, but MPM reports that it has already secured commitments of more than $12 million in donations toward the new facility.

The state’s money comes with strings attached, and the report, produced in part by county employees, states the county should replicate the state’s requirements. The state is requiring that $85 million in non-state revenue be secured, that the state retains ownership in the facility equivalent to the state’s grant, regardless of whether it is not used in the future as a museum, and that the state Department of Administration maintains review and approval authority over the project plans. Similarly, the report states the county should maintain control of the facility and the ability to find a new operator to manage it, should MPM fail in its charge, along with approval authority of plans for the new facility.

The report provides two options for the county to make the contribution. One is an upfront contribution of $45 million, which the report says would “impact the county’s self imposed bonding limit.” The county limits bonding to be no more than 3% higher than the previous year’s bonding amount. In 2022, the county bonding limit was capped at $44.5 million.

Though, according to DAS and MPM, state statute allows the county to increase its annual property tax levy to “account for an increase in debt service.” Also, under this scenario, the county’s annual $3.5 million contribution to museum operations costs would be reduced to $1 million.

Under a second scenario, the county would provide approximately $6 million to $6.5 million annually to the museum over 20 to 25 years to cover operations and long term financing of construction. This option, however, would register as an impact on the county’s annual operations budget because it would not allow the county to increase the property tax levy to account for an increase in debt service.

Either way, the county will have to negotiate the terms with the newly incorporated entity, the WMNC, which will operate the museum the way MPM has operated the Milwaukee Public Museum. The DAS-MPM report says MPM is “positioning to rebrand” itself “as the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture or a similar title… but the actual title of the future museum is still undecided.”

The museum was originally run by the city, then was taken over by the county in 1976 and later became a complicated private-public entity. The museum, the report states, has been “Wisconsin’s natural history museum throughout its history,” and now wants a “broader title” that “more clearly articulates the type of museum we are.”

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3 thoughts on “Public Museum Needs $45 Million From County”

  1. hillard says:

    Broader title…smaller collections.

  2. Polaris says:

    $240M is a heck of a lot to raise, even with the $40M from the state. Has to come from somewhere.

    That said, I’m still confused as to why the 6th and McKinley site was chosen out of all other possible downtown sites. I speculate that the Bucks pushed the site because it makes what they’ve got closer to downtown more viable/attractive. I’m totally on board with more development on the near north side of downtown, but why not along MLK or Vel Phillips? All the current new site does is expand downtown’s footprint and does nothing to eliminate underutilized downtown sites (surface parking lots, the Marcus Center parking garage, etc.) that would be more convenient for museum visitors.

  3. Gordon Skare says:

    After reading yesterday’s article on the county’s pension difficulties by Bruce Murphy, where the heck are they to come up with $45 million?
    Considering also the Domes, parks, War Memorial etc, etc, etc.

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