Circus World management up in the air - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Circus World management up in the air


BARABOO (WKOW) -- Governor Scott Walker's state budget proposal is causing controversy in Baraboo. Circus World's management says the state is taking over their operations.

Circus World is facing a funding challenge. The state budget would solve that problem, by changing operations at the site from a public-private partnership into a state-run historical site. Circus World's leaders are upset, because that plan would strip the power of the foundation's board that currently manages the museum.

Under the current agreement, the state helps the Circus World Foundation meet its $1.5 million annual budget by paying for utilities and building maintenance that costs more than $5,000. Executive director Steve Freese says they need more help but want to keep running the organization on their own. He estimates about $600,000 every two years to supplement their fundraising would be enough.

Under the budget proposal, the Wisconsin Historical Society would get $3.7 million a year from the state to fund the site and the board would no longer have decision-making power.

Freese says dissolving the 18-person board would alienate the organizations biggest donors and put the Circus World Museum's future in jeopardy.

"Our foundation over the last 54 years has raised $99.1 million dollars to collect and develop and acquire the entire site," says Freese. "Now, [the Wisconsin Historical Society] can come in and just take over the operation and they get an additional $3.7 million in spending and 10 new state employees under the governor's proposed budget."

Freese says Circus World has seen a big increase in attendance in the past few years. He says he's seen the Historical Society take over operation at other historical sites in Wisconsin, and attendance has dropped there so he's worried about losing customers under that agency's management.

Mike Schmudlach, speaking for the Historical Society, says there are no facts to back up that statement.

Schmudlach, who is a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Board of Curators and a major Circus World donor, says the organization's funding is currently being mismanaged by the Circus World Foundation.

Schmudlach believes says the operation doesn't work anymore and the Historical Society has more qualified staff to take over and run it right.

"I've seen a lot of poor management of their money; they used a federal grant and used it for payroll," says Schmudlach. "Currently at Circus World, they do not even have a curator; no one who's trained in managing these precious objects."

Schmudlach believes a change in leadership would not come with a drop in attendance or donations, but Freese says it will hurt not only Circus World, but also the surrounding area.

"Any decline in attendance is obviously going to have an impact on Sauk County employers and the tourism industry and the general public," says Freese.

Circus World ended its annual Milwaukee parade in 2003. Freese says each event used to bring in $1.5 million. He says losing that money is partially to blame for the current funding situation.

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