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Milwaukee County advances plan to put $45M toward Public Museum

Milwaukee County officials voted on Tuesday to advance a plan that would provide the Milwaukee Public Museum with $45 million for a new building to replace its 70-year-old current home.

Both the county’s Parks, Energy and Environment and Finance committees gave their recommendations on Tuesday to plans for a $240 million replacement building for the Milwaukee Public Museum, which is now at risk of losing an importation accreditation because of years of deferred maintenance.

According to the deal committee members approved, Milwaukee County would provide $45 million to the project. That amount would then be matched by $40 million from the state of Wisconsin.

With Tuesday’s approval, the financing plan now goes to the full Milwaukee County Board, which is expected to consider it on March 24. Construction on the project could begin as early as 2023 and wrap in 2026.

Ellen Censky, Milwaukee Public Museum CEO, said the new building is needed to ensure that the museum, which is operated as a quasi-public entity, doesn’t lose its accreditation. Without that credential, the public museum could lose out on grants and touring exhibits and see the confidence of its donors shaken, costing it millions of dollars.

The American Alliance of Museum postponed making a decision on the museum’s accreditation last year.

“With those types of impacts, we would start to close the museum and turn it back to the county,” Censky said.

The plan advanced Tuesday would cost the county about $55 million, including debt service, over the duration of bonds issued for the project. It would come as the county faces down a backlog of deferred capital projects, chiefly related to its cultural and recreation properties.

The deal would cause Milwaukee County to pay an additional $2.7 million a year for the public museum, according to the Milwaukee County comptroller, Scott Manske. The county now contributes $3.5 million a year to the museum’s operations, a sum that would drop to $1 million if the county were to put $45 million toward the new building up front. Pam Fendt, president of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, expressed support Tuesday for the project, saying labor interests are glad the project will offer incentives for hiring local workers.

On moving into the new building, the Milwaukee Public Museum would change its name to the Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture. It would share the 230,000-square-foot structure at the northwest corner of West McKinley Avenue and West 6th Street with the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum.

The public museum now contracts with the county to operate in its current location at 800 W. Wells St. Museum officials have said that renovating that building, rather than moving elsewhere, would cost $250 million.

The $40 million the state is providing for the new museum was approved last summer by state lawmakers, who stipulated that museum officials raise $85 million in outside revenue on their own. Milwaukee County, for its part, has called on the museum to raise $90 million for the project.

The museum has hired Mortenson and Allcon LLC, of Butler, as general contractors on the project and Kahler Slater and New York-based Ennead Architects as designers.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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