Public Policy Forum Blog

Open Spaces, Cultural Places

New developments in the debates about a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks  and a downtown streetcar have reinvigorated public discussions about whether public monies should pay for capital investments in cultural and economic development assets in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce recently wrapped up the Cultural and Entertainment Capital Needs Task Force proceedings and is crafting a fiscal report on plans to sustain Milwaukee’s arts, cultural, and recreational assets.

Amid these public discussions, some have called for a vision that recognizes both the regional draw of cultural assets in Milwaukee (such as the zoo and public museum) and that of regional assets outside of Milwaukee but within the greater Milwaukee metro area. Yet, little is known about cultural amenities in counties surrounding Milwaukee, where they are located, their fiscal condition, the amount of local tax revenues they receive (if any), or the potential benefit of additional public funding to support them.

In our just-released report, Open Spaces, Cultural Places: Exploring Culture & Recreation Funding in Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington Counties, the Public Policy Forum seeks to address this gap in public understanding. We review the three county governments and the extent to which they support culture and recreation, and we briefly examine three privately-owned cultural institutions (one from each county) to assess their financial and infrastructure needs. We conclude our report with four main policy observations:  

  1. Overall, the WOW county governments do not appear to have a pressing need for a new source of public funding to support their culture and recreation services – all three counties are in sound fiscal health and allocate funding sufficient to sustain several cultural and recreational amenities (mainly parks and golf courses) with relatively low impact on their property tax levies.
  2. On the other hand, private cultural organizations in the WOW counties could benefit from opportunities for grant funding from a new public funding source – all three organizations cite specific program or capital improvements that could potentially enhance visitor experience or expand earned revenues, but they would need to identify new funding streams to capitalize on such opportunities.
  3. Although the WOW counties enjoy economic advantages relative to Milwaukee County, our review points to to a number of capital planning practices in the WOW counties that could serve as models for Milwaukee County in its efforts to prioritize and allocate scarce infrastructure resources.
  4. Despite the lack of clear need for more public support in the WOW counties, need is not the only reason to consider the use of non-property tax public resources to support culture and recreation in the WOW counties. The ability to draw from a regional sales tax, for instance, could allow each government to provide some level of property tax relief to county taxpayers – a key objective for all three counties in this analysis.

As with our two previous reports focusing on cultural needs in Milwaukee and potential funding models, our intent with this report is not to weigh in on whether public funding should support cultural and recreational assets in the WOW counties. Instead, we hope to round out the wider debate about how to support cultural assets throughout the Milwaukee region and facilitate better-informed policy discussions and decisions. 

Anne Chapman