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Views clash over future of Circus World
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Views clash over future of Circus World

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In a tense meeting marked by pointed accusations and contradictory claims, the Circus World Museum Foundation board voted Thursday to take its fight for the historic site’s future to the state Capitol.

By a 17-2 vote, the board authorized Steve Freese, the Baraboo museum’s executive director and a former legislator, to lobby lawmakers that preserving the attraction’s long-standing public-private partnership — rather than rolling Circus World into the Wisconsin Historical Society — would best ensure its long-term viability.

“I think the Legislature is entitled to all the information,” said state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison. “I don’t think we should in any way tie Steve’s hands.”

Circus World representatives typically would be required to rely upon the Historical Society to serve as emissary to the Legislature. But relations between the organizations frayed last month after Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a budget proposal that included providing state aid, absorbing Circus World and ending the state’s lease and management agreement with the Circus World Foundation, which has run the museum privately since its inception.

Thursday’s vote to mobilize Freese hardly marked a sea change, as he and foundation representatives already have been lobbying state officials against the proposed takeover. The meeting served primarily to give both organizations a chance to promote their visions for Circus World’s future, a testy exchange that belied the cheery circus calliope music piping in from the visitor center lobby.

Foundation leaders accused the Historical Society of distorting Circus World’s financial standing and orchestrating a clandestine takeover. Freese said they have presented “a completely different picture than what really exists.”

Ellsworth Brown, executive director of the Historical Society, countered that Circus World’s finances are shaky, and he had a “fiduciary responsibility” to report his concern to the Walker administration. While the Circus World Foundation operates the site, the museum’s buildings, grounds and collections are owned by the state.

“We have a clear concern about the viability of the organization in the future,” Brown said.

Brown said the Historical Society provided the governor’s office with baseline information, but wasn’t involved in drafting the budget proposal.

“This is not our plan. We provided data,” he said. “Something needs to be done to help Circus World Museum. We weren’t lobbying for this job.”

Walter Rugland, who serves on the boards of both organizations, hailed the governor’s plan. “The evidence shows that the current model doesn’t work,” he said.

David Hoffman, a member of the Circus World Foundation board, said the proposal was doomed by misinformation. “They made a decision on false information,” Hoffman said. “The false information given will come back to haunt the Historical Society.”

Circus World and Historical Society leaders have sparred over a disputed debt between the two organizations, a lack of communication from the Historical Society to Circus World, and the organizations’ respective abilities to raise funds and attract crowds.

But they agree the site needs state funding to survive. Jonathan Lipp, chairman of the Circus World Foundation board, sent Brown a letter in January requesting state aid.

The organizations differ, though, about the immediate severity of Circus World’s budgetary woes and on the best way to keep the site in the black.

In December, the foundation board reported Circus World had enough money to ride out the 2013 summer performance season, and possibly the entire calendar year. But in 2014, unless a new source of income is identified, the museum’s future might be in jeopardy.

Given that the governor was devising his two-year budget proposal, Brown said he had to act immediately. Under the governor’s proposal, the state would give the museum $1.2 million and assume operations.

Circus World leaders are pushing to create a new agency that would operate the museum and raise funds privately, with state aid helping to support operations. “Just let this public-private partnership continue, and we’ll show you what we can do,” foundation board member David Hoffman said.

Brown questioned the wisdom of that approach, asserting the museum has lost money each year and boosted attendance primarily through discount programs that don’t help the bottom line. Circus World’s financials show profits.

Brown said it would make more sense for the state to give aid to one of its established agencies, rather than create a new public-private body some would see as redundant.

Risser said the conservative Legislature is unlikely to support Walker’s proposal. “I think there are other options available,” Risser said. “I think we have to give Steve the opportunity to explore some of these options.”

State Rep. Fred Clark, D-Sauk City, circulated a letter asking that the state provide aid and preserve its public-private ownership and management structure.

The board also voted 17-0, with two abstentions, to ask the state Legislative Audit Bureau to analyze a disputed debt the Historical Society claims Circus World owes.

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