The Milwaukee Art Museum is preparing to buy O’Donnell Park from Milwaukee County.
The announcement came Tuesday from Daniel Keegan, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, at a meeting of the county’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee. After being given several months to review the likely benefits of the proposed purchase, Keegan said the museum is ready to negotiate a deal with the county.
“Though acquiring the park is likely to be costly and complicated,” Keegan said, “it is simply too important not to proceed.”
Along with the purchase of the park itself, Keegan said, museum officials have placed a priority on maintaining the parking that now exists under the O’Donnell Park site.
Were those spaces removed, he said, they would be greatly missed by employees of the art museum, tourists and owners of nearby businesses. As for O’Donnell Park, Keegan described it as “not competing” with the museum and other nearby attractions.
A sheet laying out the terms of the proposed sale will be presented by September.
“A lease will not work. We are moving forward with an assumption that any agreement would be for an acquisition,” he said. “If we have uncertainty, it will not be because of the deal we shaped on our end that we said, ‘This works for us.’ It would be on (the county’s) end.”
According to an April 17 memo issued by Paul Bargren, the county’s lawyer, the museum leases space and land free of charge from the county while also receiving annual contributions. Those payments, also from the county, are guaranteed to come in at $1.1 million through 2023 and will be subject to negotiation afterward.
The museum’s lease runs through 2022 and allows for as many as three 25-year extensions. The county is responsible for building projects and maintaining the shoreline, leaving to the museum routine maintenance and utilities.
In April, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted 12-5 to offer to sell or lease O’Donnell Park to the museum. The proposed transaction came just a few months after the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors had voted 9-8 against selling the park to Northwestern Mutual for $14 million. County Executive Chris Abele had favored that sale.
In March, considering a separate proposal, the board had forgone holding initial discussions with museum officials while debating a proposal that would have readied the park for private redevelopment and a possible sale. That resolution was rejected in April.
Still earlier, the board had voted 12-4 on Feb. 5 to have a full audit conducted in a search for ways to improve O’Donnell Park.That audit has not been completed.
Meanwhile, as part of an amendment to the state budget earlier this month, Republican lawmakers approved a provision that would have stripped Milwaukee County supervisors of control over the park and shifted it to Abele. A later change restored the County Board’s control of the park — as well as of any land designated as belonging to a park — but not of other county-owned sites.
At the county’s hearing Tuesday, Bargren said the budget provision meant a range of county properties — museums, tourist attractions, and the airport, among others — could be sold, leased or developed without the board’s having a say. The only requirement would be that the actions first be deemed to be in the county’s “best interests.” A determination of that sort would have to come from Abele, county comptroller Scott Manske, and a county resident that has experience in real-estate law but is not an elected official.
County Supervisor Jason Haas criticized the budget provision for putting decisions of that sort “in the hands of unelected officials.” But Nate Holton, Abele’s spokesman, said two elected officials — the county executive and comptroller — would still have a vote. Moreover, the third person to hold sway is to be appointed by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council — a body composed of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Abele and the elected executive officers of every city and village within the county.
Still, Supervisor Steve Taylor said he doubts Abele will tell the board of any of his plans to develop non-park land. Taylor predicted board members will be able to learn of Abele’s intentions only by making open-records requests.
Holton said the county executive intends to operate with transparency. Follow @MatthewTaub1