Natural Partners

How Local Collaboration Could Help Fix the Milwaukee County Parks

February 2024


Video Summary

From the private beer gardens of the 19th century brewing barons to the modern waterfront views of Lake Park, Milwaukee County residents have long treasured their open spaces and time spent outdoors. The parks serving Wisconsin’s largest urban area are associated with some of the great figures of American landscape design, such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Warren H. Manning. As recently as 2009, the Milwaukee County Parks won a National Gold Medal for Excellence from the National Recreation and Park Association. In a county where more than one in six residents live in poverty, the parks serve as an abiding source of beauty and place of respite for citizens in need of it.

Yet, despite all of their strengths, challenges have been mounting for the county’s parks for some time. For more than two decades, the Wisconsin Policy Forum has documented trends of declining property tax support, a shrinking workforce, a growing reliance on earned revenue sources such as admissions fees and concession sales, and a mounting list of pressing capital projects.

The Forum warned in 2008 of “an estimated $277 million backlog of infrastructure maintenance and repairs, declining attendance at pools and golf courses, and dependence on a property tax levy funding source that has diminished by two-thirds during the past 30 years.” As documented by multiple Forum reports in the years since, the problem has only grown, with the parks department estimating its capital needs at $417 million as of 2020 and even more after adjusting for inflation.

Milwaukee County’s more than 150 parks still offer a broad array of amenities, from scenic overlooks and splash pads to tennis courts and paved trails. Yet these assets are now threatened by the very characteristics that give them their greatest value in the eyes of the community: their age, size, number, and wide distribution.

This study – like several other Forum reports over the past 15 years – seeks to help county officials find a path forward. The study is a direct follow-up to our October 2021 report – Sinking Treasure – that laid out a broad menu of options to improve the fiscal condition of the Milwaukee County Parks. Here, we specifically hone in on two of those options by exploring whether partnerships with local municipalities and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) could help to address the county parks’ many challenges, particularly in the area of capital projects.

Our research questions include:

  • What kinds of enhanced partnerships with MMSD are possible given its charter and flood control mission, the geography of county parks and waterways, and the range of park assets?
  • What types of partnerships have MMSD and Milwaukee County Parks already established and how might those efforts inform consideration of expanded approaches?
  • What types of parks partnerships have municipal governments and the county already established, how might local and county officials build on those approaches, and what are the pros and cons associated with each option?

Finding cost-effective ways to repair and restore parks assets could be a key step toward achieving better financial health for the county as well as improved health and recreation for its residents and many visitors. It could also lead to a healthier environment with less flooding, better water quality, and fewer invasive species. We hope policymakers can draw on this analysis to make accelerated progress on these goals in the months and years ahead.