Circus parade to stay in Baraboo again

Once again, the Circus World Museum's Great Circus Parade will be held in Baraboo, Wis., rather than in Milwaukee.

In 2004, the parade, which had become a summer staple of downtown Milwaukee, was held in Baraboo for the first time since 1985 because sufficient funds for its staging could not be raised. The Circus World Museum is headquartered in Baraboo.

The Circus World Museum made a proposal to the Great Circus Parade Foundation, Inc. — the separate body that funds the parade when it is staged in Milwaukee — to have the parade in Milwaukee this summer, according to Larry Fisher, executive director of the museum, but the effort was ultimately unsuccessful.

The Great Circus Parade has suffered in recent years because of decreased financial support from traditional sources of revenue. Many of the individuals who used to support the parade have either passed away or significantly decreased their funding because they are tired of supporting the parade year after year — a condition known in the industry as "donor fatigue."

"Philanthropy has changed," Fisher said. "The dynamics of what people give and how they give it are different."

Many of the foundations that help bankroll the Great Circus Parade haven't been able to contribute as much as usual, Fisher said, because their finances have taken a hit by the current economic conditions.

"Many foundations who have traditionally supported us haven't been able to do so because of diminished investments," Fisher said.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, for instance, has given approximately $1.5 million to "support the presentation of the Great Circus Parade" since 1991, but has suffered a 30 percent decrease in the value of its investments since 1999, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2003.

Staging the parade in Milwaukee costs around $1.5 million, according to Fisher, while having it in Baraboo costs only a third of that.

Having the parade in Milwaukee is more expensive because the Circus World Museum must pay to transport the parade's 40 to 50 wagons, 350 to 400 horses, performers and other assorted animals by train.

"Operating the train to Milwaukee was an expensive endeavor," Fisher said. "In Baraboo, we don't need the train. It's right in our backyard."

Once in Milwaukee, the Circus Parade had to set up a base camp in Veterans Park complete with temporary water systems, housing and electrical systems — an expensive undertaking.

"The cost of all that setup in Veterans Park was enormous," Fisher said.

By having the parade in Baraboo these costs are averted because the parade doesn't need to be transported, Fisher said. Also, there isn't a need for temporary infrastructure because the parade can operate out of the Circus World Museum's 39-building, 63-acre compound on the banks of the Baraboo River, he said.

But is the parade as big of a hit in Baraboo as it was in Milwaukee?

"It's comparing apples and oranges," Fisher said.

The parade route in Baraboo is only about 500 feet shorter than the route in Milwaukee, Fisher said, and so Baraboo has the same crowd capacity as Milwaukee. However, the parade only attracted about 60,000 spectators last year, while in Milwaukee its average was closer to 120,000, according to Fisher.

About 100,000 spectators were expected in Baraboo for the parade. Fisher chalks the difference up to a "torrential" 5.5 inches of rain that fell in the days around the parade.

A spokeswoman from the Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on the parade's impact on the Baraboo economy, but there doesn't appear to be any evidence that Milwaukee is smarting from the loss of the Great Circus Parade.

"There are more than enough attractions here to take its place," said Dave Fantle, public relations director for the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The city has done a really good job of introducing tourist attractions that lessen the loss of not having the parade."

Fantle cited Miller Park, the Milwaukee Theatre and the soon-to-be-completed Milwaukee Public Market in the Third Ward and Pier Wisconsin near the harbor as examples of such tourist destinations.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Jan. 18 2005.