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Shrinking budgets force Milwaukee County Parks to do more with less

Peter Zuzga

The first time Milwaukee had any semblance of a park was back in the 1850s, and it was very on brand: beer gardens brought to the city by German immigrants.

It wasn't until 1907 that Milwaukee's Socialist Party formed the Milwaukee County Parks Commission led by Charles Whitnall. The first land purchases included County Park (now Grant Park); from there, the park system grew to 15,000 acres by 1980. But a growing budget crisis resulted in the abolishment of the commission, and the county government created the Department of Parks, Recreation & Culture.

This outdoor all-terrain wheelchair enhances accessibility for people who want to enjoy nature trails. | (Photo courtesy: Wehr Nature Center)

The park system’s growth continued into the 1990s, with 76 bike trails officially renamed the Oak Leaf Trail in 1996. Recent history has proven more challenging.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Milwaukee County closed park venues and canceled events, dramatically impacting the park system’s budget — a budget that hasn’t changed in more than 30 years. The Milwaukee County Parks Twitter account hasn’t been shy about letting the public know about it.

In this “Uniquely Milwaukee” episode, we follow Nate Imig in pursuit of his summer goal to spend more time outdoors in Milwaukee County Parks and learn what they offer amid a shrinking budget. 

Then you’ll hear my conversation with Milwaukee County Parks Director of Administration and Planning Jeremy Lucas to learn why funding hasn’t changed since 1989, and Wehr Nature Center Director Carly Hintz to understand changes that have made the parks more accessible.

Audio Storyteller / 88Nine On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee