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Circus World, historical society debate state takeover

Published On: Mar 15 2013 07:26:32 AM CDT   Updated On: Mar 15 2013 12:40:26 PM CDT
BARABOO, Wis. -

Operators of Circus World, the Baraboo museum rich in the history of the Ringling brothers, asked community members Thursday to help them stay independent of the state.

Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal calls for a state takeover, along with a funding increase, for the attraction.

About 80 people came to a town hall meeting Thursday. They included state Rep. Fred Clark, D-Sauk City, who said he opposed the takeover but would advocate for a state audit of an ongoing debt dispute between Circus World and the Wisconsin Historical Society, which would also include an audit of the museum's operations.

The museum's operators said they would have trouble paying the bills in 2014 and said they and the Wisconsin Historical Society directors agreed that more state money was necessary.

The state currently owns the museum but a private group of donors runs it. A state takeover would make those donors outcasts, said Steve Freese, Circus World's executive director.

"Why would you just discard them as if they're no use anymore, when they have shown they can very successfully do the fundraising?" he said.

Circus World's operators point to bigger crowds over the past five years, while attendance at the state-run Old World Wisconsin attraction near Eagle has faltered.

Historical Society Director Ellsworth Brown was in the crowd Thursday, at one point rising to refute what Freese was saying.

"What you didn't hear was the amazing depth and range of the Wisconsin historical society," he said.

Accusations that funding for the museum would fall apart under government operation are false, Brown said.

"It might be most efficient to use an existing state agency that's accountable, that runs 11 other sites around the state, whose job it is to market, to organize staff, to organize programs and to engage people," he said.

Walker's budget proposal now sits in the state legislature.

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