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Summer planning continues at Circus World
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Summer planning continues at Circus World

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Circus World Museum supporters have decided to go ahead with fundraising, including presenting an annual summer gala, despite the Baraboo historic site’s uncertain future.

During a Circus of Chefs planning meeting Wednesday, organizers decided to press on despite their dismay over the governor’s plan to fold the museum into the Wisconsin Historical Society, Circus World Executive Director Steve Freese said.

Freese said organizers are halfway toward reaching their $165,000 fundraising goal for the June 23 event.

“It would be consequential if we had to return the money,” he said.

Last week, Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a budget plan that included rolling Circus World — whose property is state-owned but whose operations are funded privately — into the Historical Society. This would include making Circus World’s staffers state employees, funneling the site’s revenue into state coffers and ending a lease agreement between the state the Circus World Museum Foundation, Inc., which has operated the museum for 54 years.

Freese said many donors have contacted him, furious about the proposed disbanding of the foundation and have vowed to suspend support if the state takes over.

The fate of Walker’s proposal won’t be known until this summer, when the Assembly and Senate vote on the budget. But in the meantime, Freese needs to book acts and hire summer staff.

Freese said he’s concerned about the foundation spending about $250,000 on summer acts up front, then potentially losing out on gate revenue after the new state budget takes effect July 1. The state can terminate its lease and management agreement with the foundation with 30 days’ notice. “We would be screwed,” Freese said.

Ellsworth Brown, executive director of the Historical Society, couldn’t be reached Friday for comment.

During the gala planning meeting, Freese said supporters agreed to do all they could to keep Circus World in the black and demonstrate that the institution has a strong future.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep the doors open,” Freese said. “They want to go out with a bang if they’re forced to go out.”

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A proposed state takeover of Circus World Museum would endanger fundraising efforts and possibly force the site to close this year, its leaders say.

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