The Milwaukee County Parks, Energy and Environment Committee held its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, but the conversation was anything but regular.
When the discussion turned to the daunting challenge of dealing with years of deferred maintenance across the county’s park system, tensions arose.
The meeting started smoothly. District 15 Supervisor Peter Burgelis proposed naming the road through Washington Park “Olmsted Way” after famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
“Before he designed parks across the country, including Central Park in New York, parks were plentiful in the United States, but they were private. Olmsted introduced the idea that parks should be shared public spaces. Burgelis added, “We can honor that and reaffirm that commitment to Milwaukee County by renaming this road Olmsted Way.”
Committee members answered with a resounding yes, but as attention turned to the cost of keeping, or in many cases returning, Milwaukee County’s 157 parks to pristine condition, the unit turned. frayed.
In 2019, a non-profit organization called Milwaukee Parks Foundation trained to help.
Separate but created to support county parks, the foundation’s board includes business leaders and philanthropists.
Rebecca Stoner, who came on board as executive director in 2021, said the foundation has raised more than $500,000 so far. “An ongoing project that we are working on, we are working in partnership with Friends of Rose Park and The Park People, repainting a mural that is significantly deteriorated at Rose Park Senior Center,” Stoner explained.
Money has been set aside to maintain the mural. Another project the foundation is working on is investing more than $50,000 to paint and revitalize seven basketball courts in 2022, she said. This project also includes maintenance funds.
She continued: “We’re also teaming up with Running Rebels to host a 3v3 tournament on one of these repainted courts in September to celebrate.”
Supervisor Steve Taylor, a committee member, represents Franklin and Oak Creek. He expressed concern that the parks in these communities will not benefit from the money raised by the foundation.
“When you talk about fairness and how much money the south side sends to Milwaukee County in terms of taxpayer dollars and what we get back in return, it’s not equal. So, I understand those are separate, but when you tell me the focus is on Milwaukee, again – the suburbs, not feeling the love,” he said.
Stoner acknowledged Taylor’s frustration, but said the nongovernmental organization also needed to prioritize.
“We use [the county’s equity index] as one of our guidance tools for making the decision. Does that mean we will never invest in suburban parks? No, but that means our parks are focused on those that rank high on the stock market index and are primarily in the city of Milwaukee,” she said.
When Taylor pushed back, saying he might need to come back with his own stock index. “For municipalities that ship a lot of money downtown in property taxes and don’t get it back, then maybe I need to think about how to create that,” he said.
Committee member Supervisor Felesia Martin, District 7, felt compelled to speak out. “As a black woman, I’m sitting next to you and I’m offended by your words,” she said.
Martin represents an assortment of neighborhoods in Milwaukee, from West Silver Spring Drive to West Meinecke Avenue.
“We want all communities, suburban, urban, rural – you name it – we want everyone to get their fair share, but when it comes to people of color, we’ve never had our fair share and we deserve it. In fact, we are entitled to it. We paid in blood, sweat and tears and if you want to call it a right, damn it, your fucking right, we got it,” Martin said.
Emotions cooled and the agenda shifted, but at the end of the meeting Martin returned to the topic of parks.
She urged residents to “heckle” to support every inch of green space in Milwaukee County. “We know that living in a concrete jungle lends itself to a lot of angst and anxiety. Green spaces lend themselves to mental well-being. As a voter, you are the most powerful person in whatever room you are sitting in. And that’s what I would like all of us to do — make sure we raise our voices at the state and county level and make sure we’re listening and empowering people,” Martin said.
At the end of the summer, residents will have the opportunity to share their views during a virtual public meeting. The August 25 event has a daunting title – Sinking Treasure.
It is the name of a Wisconsin Public Policy Forum Reportreleased in 2021, which looked at ways Milwaukee County could save the parks system.
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