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Jackson Park in autumn

Milwaukee County Parks are in Desperate Financial Straits

December 11, 2021  |  Topics: Issues, Spotlight

By Rebecca Stoner, Executive Director of the Milwaukee County Parks Foundation.

Photo Essay by Eddee Daniel.

Our Parks are in desperate need of support. If things continue as they are now, Milwaukee County Parks will have no local tax funding dollars left by 2027. Due to decades of decreases in public funding, our parks face the following challenges:

  • The Milwaukee County Parks Department has seen a consistent, thirty-year decline in funding.
  • Our County Parks have a backlog of hundreds of millions of dollars in “infrastructure maintenance and repairs,” according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, yet only receive one fourth of the dollars for capital projects they need annually.
  • The Milwaukee County Parks Department has one third of the staff they had in the 1980s, but the same acreage. With 15,300+ acres of land to manage, that means each Parks Department employee is responsible for managing the equivalent of 28 Lambeau Fields!
County Grounds Park in Wauwatosa is one of the newer parks in the county system.

Clearly, the Parks Department is in an impossible situation, with unsustainable resources, which could lead to further disinvestment and deterioration of our incredible parks. There are two ways to approach this challenge.

First, more sustainable long-term funding is needed. In a recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report, multiple solutions are posed to solve this fiscal crisis. Ongoing conversation and a plan of action will be developed in the coming months to see what is feasible. Wisconsin Policy Forum is not alone in this work. The community of park lovers has long been working on solutions. Groups like Preserve Our Parks and the County Executive’s Office have been working hard to find a way forward. I am cautiously optimistic that we can muster the political will to find more sustainable government funding for parks.

A Ko-Thi Dance Company public dance workshop in Lincoln Park, Milwaukee, part of the Milwaukee River Greenway.

The second approach to this challenge is leveraging the generosity and passion of our community. This is where Milwaukee Parks Foundation (MPF) comes in. Founded in December 2019, MPF works to leverage donations, secure volunteers, and grow partnerships. We focus on building a more equitable, vibrant future for our parks. In particular, MPF intends to invest in parks that have seen historic disinvestment due to racism and other systems of oppression. While we plan to invest in the Milwaukee County Parks system as a whole, we also intend to invest in and involve partner groups such as friends groups, The Park People, neighborhood organizations, resident-led coalitions, and more, to relieve the pressures facing our parks.

Youth and adults sporting trophies at the 414 Trust Youth kickball tournament hosted by the We Care Crew, Beckum Park, August, 2021. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Parks.

One example of an investment made by MPF in 2020 was to the We Care Crew. Using Milwaukee County Parks as distribution centers, the We Care Crew offered masks, meals, safe programming, activities, bike drives, and more. Milwaukee Parks Foundation invested in the We Care Crew because we know what makes parks thrive. Parks thrive with the energy, creativity, commitment of YOU, and all residents who go out of their way to love our parks.

A popular sledding hill on Milwaukee’s lakefront at the south end of Lake Park.

These solutions cannot be on the shoulders of nonprofit organizations and the County Parks system alone. It takes all of us to further this important work. As a newer organization, I know we have a lot of work to do. I also know that work starts with you, with us – from there we build momentum and, ultimately, a movement to save our parks. As you wrap up 2021, I hope you think about your local Milwaukee County Park and the experiences you’ve had and how you can get involved in a way that is meaningful to you.

Whether it’s baseball, trails, kayaking, golfing, or just enjoying a quiet moment of reflection on a bench, our parks have given us so much. It’s high time we give back.

The Domes in Mitchell Park had to close for a period of time due to structural problems that have yet to be resolved.
A jogger enjoys the blaze of autumn on a woodland trail in Kletzsch Park, Milwaukee.
A school group admires a tulip bed at Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnall Park in Hales Corners.
A family cross country ski outing in Kern Park, Milwaukee, part of the Milwaukee River Greenway.
Two thirds of the Milwaukee County Park System’s 15,300 acres are managed as natural areas, like the wide open spaces along the Oak Leaf Trail in the Root River Parkway, Franklin.
An unseasonably warm day in early spring brings out the crowds in Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa.
Snowshoers on the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park, South Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee County Park System includes Lake Michigan beaches from Doctors Park on the north to Bender Park on the south, with several in between, including the most popular, Bradford Beach.
Harvesting corn at Alice’s Garden in Johnson’s Park, Milwaukee, one of a number of community gardens in county parks.
The Oak Leaf Trail, here in Oak Creek on the Oak Creek Parkway, encircles Milwaukee County with over 135 miles of trail.
Community gardens and another stretch of the Oak Leaf Trail in Riverside Park, part of the Milwaukee River Greenway.
Winterfest, organized by the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park, Milwaukee, includes ice skating lessons for beginners of all ages.
A paddling event organized by Nearby Nature MKE brings kayakers of many ages onto the Milwaukee River in Lincoln Park.

For more information go to Milwaukee Parks Foundation and Preserve Our Parks.

All photographs by Eddee Daniel, except as noted. The featured photo at the top is of Jackson Park in Milwaukee. Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks. Except for our mutual interest in protecting and maintaining Milwaukee County parks, there is no official affiliation between Milwaukee Parks Foundation and Preserve Our Parks.