13 Short Facts About The Domes
Domes task force presented with data that reveals much about the popular attraction.
A task force convened by the Milwaukee County Board to consider long-term options for the Milwaukee County Horticultural Conservatory, known by all as the Domes, met for the second time this week. Several county officials presented reports relevant to decisions about the Domes. Budgets for all Milwaukee County Parks facilities, including the Domes, have been slashed over a period of years. Unfunded pension commitments and other “legacy” personnel costs remain big expenses. However, the Domes staff, working with many volunteers, have been doing a lot with a little.
Here are 13 highlights of information revealed about The Domes:
1. The Domes county subsidy averages $674,000. A report by county budget director Steven Kreklow said the county’s operating subsidy for the Domes was $476,000 in 2015 and averaged $674,000 over the past seven years. By comparison, the annual county subsidy is $7.5 million for the zoo, $3.5 million for Milwaukee Public Museum, $1.29 million for Milwaukee Art Museum, and $900,000 for Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Most if not all of these groups have larger budgets than The Domes.
2. Friends of the Domes donate about $100,000 annually. This 1,600-member nonprofit performs numerous tasks including managing the gift shop and special events. Five part-time staff are supported by many volunteers. The Friends recently purchased a new point-of-sale system for the gift shop. Their efforts supplement the work of 11 full-time and seven part-time Domes staff.
3. The Domes produce higher revenues than reports indicate. Domes director Sandy Folaron explained that accounting figures for the Domes do not reflect income generated by the Friends of the Domes or Zilli Hospitality Group. Zilli pays percentages on its sales directly to the parks department, so it doesn’t appear in Domes accounting. Also, about 20 percent of the Domes’ greenhouse costs are incurred to supply plants for the Boerner Botanical Gardens. The county’s greenhouse operations were recently moved to the Domes after former off-site greenhouses were demolished for a freeway expansion. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation funded the new $10-million greenhouses, including the Annex.
5. The Domes’ plants are worth millions. Domes horticultural educator Paula Zamiatowski said that Domes staff are “really worried about the priceless collection of plants,” should the Domes be scrapped. Folaron said the collection of both tropical and desert plants, some older than the half-century old Domes, is valued at $3.2 million.
6. Events are a big draw and attendance is growing. Domes’ attendance has risen 29 percent since 2011, in part due to festivals, concerts and other special events, according to Folaron. She said events bring in new visitors and “cross promote” other offerings. There are 26 special programs planned for 2017 to appeal across all demographics. Domes facilities are also frequently rented for weddings and other private functions. The Winter Farmers Market is held in the Annex Saturdays from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. Upcoming events include a family-friendly New Year’s Eve Celebration, Hearts Under Glass (Valentine’s Day), a Bonsai Show, Orchid Show, and Green Living Festival. Ethnic festivals over the years have celebrated German, Chinese, Polish, Irish and Turkish traditions. The Urban Garage Sale drew 3,500 attendees last weekend.
7. “Music Under Glass” could resume if sponsors emerge. Folaron said the decision to pull the plug on the winter series was based on declining attendance and lack of sponsors. The 2016 concerts were held in the Annex after the Domes were closed. They drew 2,500 for nine concerts, but the change of venue and closing of the Domes impacted the series. Folaron said big-name bands in the early years often drew 700 to 900. Music Under Glass launched in 2008 with Potawatomi Casino & Bingo as the series sponsor. They contributed $30,000 to $35,000 annually to cover bands, a sound engineer and extensive marketing through print ads, flyers and digital billboards. Folaron said that when Potawatomi stopped sponsoring the series three years ago the county began underwriting it with help from Friends of the Domes. Last year the Friends contributed $9,000, which covered all band fees. Nonetheless, a scaled-back series budget resulted in lower attendance. Folaron encourages anyone interested in sponsoring Music Under Glass, or finding sponsors, to contact her 414- 257-5600.
8. County Parks has hired its first-ever development officer. The person hired was Jay Burseth, who previously worked in development for WMSE-FM and came on board about three weeks ago. He will seek sponsorships and other contributions for parks programming and enhancements. At the Domes Grand Reopening he told Urban Milwaukee he wants to “help make sure that community events are a big part of what’s happening at the Domes.” His work could help not just the Domes but all parks in the county.
9. The Domes lack a full-time marketer: Folaron said there is not a “full-fledged marketing budget for the Domes,” but only a part-time “marketing manager.” Some Domes events are promoted by Friends or by the parks department. The Domes social media presence is minimal compared with peer botanical destinations. Folaron noted that a bigger marketing budget would afford more tourism promotion. An open marketing manager position will also be filled soon, and will serve all parks activities, including the Domes.
10. Two-thirds of Domes visitors are from outside the county. That includes 39 percent from all other Wisconsin counties, 22 percent from other states, and four percent from other countries. Folaron said she thinks many out-of-state visitors accompany local family and friends. “People who love the Domes bring people. And people clearly love the Domes.” Task force member Ranell Washington, a banking executive who has visited the Domes since childhood, was surprised by the percentage of visitors from outside the county. He wondered if there might be ways to enlist regional or statewide support for the Domes on that basis. The committee also discussed whether it might be possible to add a slight surcharge for non-county visitors.
11. There is huge potential to grow programming. Folaron said the opportunities are “endless.” Washington asked whether it was possible to involve more students in Domes programs. Folaron said one limitation was public-school funding for buses. However, the Friends group sometimes donates money to underwrite bus costs. Educator-led programs for students are offered to any interested group for a fee. The Education Room seats about 40 and the multi-use Annex can accommodate hundreds. School-age science programs open to the general public are conspicuously lacking. The roster of horticulture programs for adults is also thin compared with other county facilities.
A memo by county facilities director Jeremy Theis notes: “With approval of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, the Task Force has access to an additional $120,000.” Committee members proposed that future efforts to engage the public about potential long-term solutions could be planned after more data is available. Graef’s updated engineering study and cost estimates, promised by midsummer, will be released to committee members within a week, according to Theis.
13. Several scenarios could fund a major capital project. Kreklow described an approach using funds from the Domes’ county operating subsidy for debt service; dedicating 50 percent of the County Parks annual capital budget for five years, or issuing $50 million in General Obligation Bonds. A new sales tax dedicated to parks and cultural needs was also discussed as a way to change the potential funding landscape.
–Tentative date for next Domes Task Force meeting: Thursday, January 4, 2017 in the Domes Lobby.
-The Domes will stay open Thursday evenings from January 14 through April 2. In addition to the popular “Model Train Garden Extravaganza” display in the Show Dome, there will be special programming and a light-and-music show presented in the Show Dome each evening.