Milton House is 'single, biggest tourism draw,' says director

The Milton House museum is the “single, biggest tourism draw in Milton,” says Milton Historical Society Executive Director Kari Klebba. Her comments came during a Milton city council meeting held Oct. 15 during which the preliminary 2020 city budget was rolled out. Klebba requested $20,000 to help support the Milton House this year from the city’s budget. The council is expected to approve a final budget in November.

Two Milton nonprofit organizations came before the City of Milton Common Council on Tuesday, Oct. 15, to request annual funding as part of the 2020 general fund city budget.

Milton Historical Society Executive Director Kari Klebba requested $20,000 in 2020, double that of last year’s request.

No action was taken on the request. The 2020 preliminary budget, also presented during the Oct. 15 meeting, includes $10,000 for the Milton House, 18 S. Janesville St.

A request for $15,000 from The Gathering Place was also received. The proposed budget includes $10,000 for that organization.

The requests will be included for discussion and consideration as the 2020 budget develops. A final budget will be adopted by the city council in November.

Klebba said the increased funds, if granted, would be used to offset the cost of additional staffing during the spring, summer and fall tourism season and the cost of marketing and advertising to increase regional and national awareness to the historical site.

Klebba serves as one of three city representatives on the Milton Area Marketing and Tourism Consortium, which formed this year, in collaboration with the Janesville Area Visitors and Convention Bureau and the Milton Area Chamber of Commerce, to promote tourism in Milton. The consortium’s budget in 2019 was $15,000. During the council’s Oct.1 meeting, City Administrator Al Hulick suggested council might consider increasing the city’s $5,000 contribution to the consortium’s budget for next year. The contract forming the consortium comes due for renewal in February.

During a slide presentation shared with the council on Oct. 15, Klebba highlighted what she described as the impact of the Milton House on Milton tourism, calling the museum: “without question, the single, biggest tourism draw in Milton.”

From the presentation

Klebba said the Milton Historical Society was formed as a nonprofit in 1948. Its mission is to preserve the cultural and historical heritage of Milton and the surrounding area.

The Milton House is a national historic landmark and an authenticated station on the “Underground Railroad,” serving also as an archive and research center, she said.

Looking at tourism numbers over the last seven years, Klebba said the Milton House had enjoyed increased attendance when combining three categories, including group tours, drop-in tours and special events.

A chart showed that attendance rose from 8,465, in 2013, to 12,797, in 2018. Year-to-date, in 2019, 10,237 visitors had come through the doors.

Citing the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, Tourism Impact Report as her source, Klebba said Milton House visitors impacted the local economy through direct spending, business sales, and increased state and local sales taxes.

Looking at Rock County visitors over three years, between 2016 and 2018, the numbers were as follows:

• Direct spending: 2016: $235 million; 2017: $244 million, and 2018: $251 million.

• Business sales from tourism: 2016: $384 million; 2017: $398 million, and 2018: $412 million.

• Taxes generated through tourism: 2016: $28 million; 2017: $29 million, and 2018: $30 million.

Klebba said Milton House was drawing guests from a broad area. Using data from the museum’s 2019 tour register log and a visual aid showing the names of locations from which visitors originated, Klebba said the areas from which Milton House recieved the largest draw were Milton, Janesville and Madison, followed by Milwaukee, Chicago, Rockford and Fort Atkinson. A third tier included Illinois, Beloit, Evansville, Elkhorn, Texas and Florida.

Klebba said guests to the Milton House have also arrived from 50 states, and 60 countries and territories. The list spanned alphabetically from Argentina to Zambia.

The Milton House has been featured in 16 regional and national publications, including: The Washington Post, National Geographic, Better Homes and Garden, The Chicago Tribune and Forbes, according to Klebba.

Using a bar graph, Klebba offered a six-year comparison of income and expenses at the Milton House.

The graph showed that expenses exceeded income between 2014 and 2016, although the gap progressively narrowed. In 2017, income ($185.032) exceeded expenses ($173,275), in 2018, revenues grew, but the margin narrowed, with income ($218,223) exceeding expenditures ($214,033).

In 2019, year-to-date, income and expenditure are running nearly even, with income at $104,071 and expenditures slightly higher at $106,588.

Klebba described revenue sources as primarily school tours and membership dues, augmented by special events and fundraisers.

In making her case for additional funds, Klebba cited the city’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2015. She said the Milton House was named in the plan over 30 times, with the plan noting specifically that exploration should occur to “increase staffing to handle increased visitor traffic,” and that the “curator and the Milton Historical Society should project staffing needs and costs to the City of Milton and the community.”

As cited by Klebba, the plan further states a desire to “promote Milton’s historic resources as a local and regional tourist attraction…”

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