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Many questions remain about Big Top's long-term contract at Breese Stevens

The first presentation to the public of a proposed contract between Big Top and the City of Madison was on Wednesday last week. The Use Agreement proposed is for 15 years, with the option to extend for another 5 years.

My kids are 5 and 7 years old. They will be somewhere between the ages of 20 and 27 when this contract expires -- maybe working, going to college, starting families of their own. 

Twenty years ago, Tommy Thompson was our Governor. In 2003, Sue Bauman was the Mayor of Madison, our first and only (so far) woman mayor. At that time, Facebook didn't yet exist.

My point is that 15-20 years is a long time.

This contract deserves some scrutiny from the City of Madison, the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association, and anyone interested in the future of downtown Madison.

The information publicly presented, and re-capped in the recent Wisconsin State Journal article, offers a vision of some of the changes. However, there are many questions not yet answered. Without additional information, it is hard to imagine the full scope of this contract or what possibilities are unexplored.

The Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association meets on February 8th. Members of the council are gathering questions, researching answers, and encouraging neighbors to be in communicating with their Alder, Ledell Zellers

The City of Madison Parks Division owns the historic property. The seven members of the Board of Parks Commissioners have the job of overseeing maintenance and acquisition of everything from greenways to the municipal swimming pool to Breese Stevens. 

The Use Agreement is proposed by Big Top Events, a company that will manage the property, pay a lease, and bring in revenue. The City Council will be asked to approve the contract. 

The proposed rental for the next 15 years is stated to be approximately $100,000/year, or $8,333/month. [A three bedroom, 2 bath apartment at the Constellation next door rents for $2,245/month.] There are retail spaces and opportunities for restaurants and vendors within Breese Stevens, all of which would be subleased by Big Top to bring additional revenue.

The following facts were presented by Big Top Baseball in a public listening session on January 24th. 

Click here to download the PDF. My outstanding questions are listed below.

5 years remaining
15 years with 5 year option

Professional Soccer
No team
2019 Launch of professional soccer team

Facility Improvements
$1.6 Million invested by city

# of Concerts
6 +1 (Madison Parks Foundation fundraiser)
7-14 (Annual increase in concerts, not to exceed 14)

Concert Decibel Levels
100 dBa at sound board
No change

Non Concert Decibel Levels
85 dBa at perimeter
No change

10:00 PM
All events 10:00 PM, except one (1) 10:30 PM and one (1) 11:00 PM

Stage Orientation
Restricted only for concerts to point away from Mifflin St.
Restricted for all events to point away from Mifflin St.

PA System
New system to better contain sound in facility for non-concert events

Rental Fee
Approximately $30,000/year
Approximately $100,000/year

Ability to Sublease Space Under Seating

Beer and Wine Sales
Allowed for all non high school events
No change

Liquor Sales
Liquor allowed at private parties only
Liquor available at all public, as well as private events, in separately ticketed spaces inside stadium

Free Community Facility Use
Zero events
Eight proposed

Two full-time employees
12 full-time employees

Some questions that I have:

-How many professional soccer league games will there be per season?

-When will games be held? In other words, weekends or weekdays, and will they be daytime or evening events?

-What will the average ticket price be for professional soccer games?

-What is the average ticket price for concerts at Breese Stevens?

-When does Breese Stevens open for the season? When does it close? How many days of this season will the venue NOT be used? 

-How many total events -- including concerts, sporting events, East High School events, community events, and 'other' uses -- take place during this season?

-How many events take place in downtown neighborhood parks other than Breese Stevens between May and September?

-How does the Marquette Neighborhood Association use the revenue generated from the events they help to run and organize?

-Is revenue from Breese Stevens considered part of the Parks Commission's long-range plan for supporting the 249 parks, 4 golf courses and 1 cemetery that are part of Madison's park system?

- Does the contract contain a provision that increases the rent over time with inflation and cost of living changes?

Do you have other questions?

Please send them to Alder Ledell Zellers and Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association president Patty Prime.

Ledell Zellers :
Patty Prime :


Three Cheers for Lapham: Wisconsin's first scholar

Mention Increase Allen Lapham and you’ll get a mixed response. His first name is unusual enough to be intriguing, confusing, and forgettable. The last name is associated with so many different things it has lost connection with the man and his story.

Increase Lapham is called things like “Wisconsin’s first scientist” or the “Father of the U.S. Weather Service.” Plants, a trilobite, and meteor markings are named for him, as are streets, parks, and even a WWII U.S. Navy ship. I have always thought it was too bad that his story isn’t more commonly known, especially among those of us living in ‘his’ neighborhood and for the many kids who proudly sing ‘his’ school anthem.

Increase was born in 1811. He was an explorer and tinkerer who was full of delight and appreciation for the land that we now know as Wisconsin.  He had a respect for ecology, the Native heritage, and our place in the universe that was unusual for his time.

He moved to the Milwaukee area twelve years before Wisconsin became a state and immediately directed his curiosity and his skills in observation to understanding the region. He wrote the first book written and published in Wisconsin. He studied and wrote about the geography, topography, history, geology, mineralogy, natural history, trees, conservation, soil, and ‘antiquities’ (Indian mounds) of the region.

He was a man of endless curiosity who drew the flora and fauna of the area with beautiful precision, who surveyed the land and made the first maps of the area, who discovered mounds and archeological sites in the region, and who marveled at everything in the natural world. 

Increase called himself a citizen scientist. He didn’t have a college degree, but he was interested in trying everything. Much like your typical elementary school student! 

When I moved to Wisconsin to work for a state-wide cultural organization, I had to get caught up on the people and places of the region’s history. That’s when I met Rob Nurre, an enthusiastic expert on Increase Lapham. 

My first daughter started kindergarten at Lapham Elementary School in 2015, 110 years after it was dedicated in honor of Increase Lapham. Rob is the one who told me that Increase’s daughters, Mary and Julia, annually donated something from the explorer’s collection to the school on March 7th, his birthday. One year they gave the school one of his microscopes. These items all ended up as part of the enormous Lapham collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society when the school closed briefly in the 1980s.

Currently there is only a small plaque above a bubbler in the school memorializing Wisconsin's first scholar. It is made of tan ceramic and is hard to read, if you even notice it. My kids are not impressed by this boring sign and I agree: it doesn't really speak to Increase Lapham's playfully curious character.

Celebrating Increase Lapham by educating the next generation of citizen scientists

Here is where the story takes a modern turn: This spring every kindergartner, first and second grader at Lapham Elementary School will make a personal acquaintance with Increase Lapham. Hopefully that antiquated first name will start rolling off the tongues of neighborhood children (and their parents)!

Using grant money from the Madison Community Foundation, with additional funds from our good neighbors Stone House Development and materials from Thermo Fisher Scientific, Lapham Elementary students will be celebrating the legacy of Increase Lapham through art and music and more

  • Increase Lapham will spend a day visiting each classroom! Rob Nurre, dressed in period clothing and with pockets filled with trilobites, rocks and other curious bits from the natural world, will come in character to talk with students about the world of Wisconsin in the mid-1800s.

  • An exhibit about Increase Lapham in the school hall will help students, teachers and parents get to know the curiosities and achievements of this influential Wisconsinite. It will include images of Lapham, copies of some of his drawings and journals, as well as the kinds of scientific and artistic tools he used.

  • Students will make special notebooks to record their observations on the natural world. Modeled after Lapham’s own notebook held in the Wisconsin Historical Society collection, a little pocket in the front of the notebook will hold a magnifying glass. Fact sheets will be pasted inside the cover of the book. Guest artist Amy Mietzel will spend two weeks in the art classroom to help each student decorate and customize their notebook.

  • Information about Increase Lapham’s interests and studies will be provided to all teachers so they can make connections within their lessons. For example, in music class students will to compose lyrics to a song connecting the dots between life as a Lapham student and the endless curiosity that leads to a life of learning. The Gardener-in-Residence will help the students use their notebooks to record observations in the garden.

Increase Lapham was interested in and influential in so many spheres, the story has many entry points. There are fun ways for Kindergarten, first and second grade lessons to connect to his studies and accomplishments. For example, my second grader observes the weather every evening and records the data. My kindergartner made binoculars in art class. Now they might also come away from their time at Lapham Elementary School proud that they, like Increase Lapham, are citizen scientists. And curious about all there is left to explore around them!

Neighborhood on display: A photo exhibition by Chris Norris

Seeing home with fresh eyes

Chris Norris is a neighbor and photographer who has been turning his interest in architecture and documentary film into a photo-investigation over the past few years. An exhibition of his images, a collection called "The Final Day," opens at Madison Central Library’s third floor gallery space this Friday during Gallery Night.  

As he says himself, these photographs are "a hyper-local, intimate look at the residential, industrial, and greenspace areas of the Madison Isthmus."

Chris moved to the neighborhood not too long after I started this blog. Like many of us, he has been fascinated by the rapid changes taking place since the area was named the Capitol Gateway Corridor to attract and guide development. Shot over the past few years, starting in 2014, he comments, "It's amazing how many of these photographs are already historical just a few years later."

What I love about these images is the way they present my home turf, my regular sights and scenes, as a city stripped down to elements. 

I realize that what makes this place, my neighborhood, feel like home is in large part the people. In these gorgeous compositions, I see the cityscape I inhabit as I might see a city I was visiting, a city of strangers to explore as an outsider.

I love exploring. I wander somewhat religiously, letting my eyes and feet lead. I see in these photos that Chris is also an explorer.

There is a playful and provocative little book by Keri Smith, called The Wander Society, that incites us to join thinkers, artists and poets who, throughout history and in cultures all over the earth have found wisdom through wandering. 'Solvitur ambulando' is the mission and the calling. It is revolutionary, and revelatory, to slow down, follow whims, and notice the canvas of our lives like this.

 Learn more about Chris's work at

'The Final Day' Opening Party
Friday, October 6th from 5-9PM
Madison Central Library, 3rd floor

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