Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Domes Proposal Requires Great Speed

Consultant's "Think Big" solution requires fast-paced applications for grants, tax credits.

By - Jul 24th, 2019 12:53 pm
The Domes. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Domes. Photo by Dave Reid.

If a consultant on the Mitchell Park domes project is right, the county has an opportunity to save the domes and revamp the park, but it will require almost unprecedented speed from the levers of county government.

ArtsMarket, Inc., a consultant brought on by the county to assist the Domes Task Force in their final phase, has drawn up a proposed business plan. Louise K. Stevens, lead consultant and company founder, said the plan is aggressive, but is likely the only way to feasibly re-develop the domes in a sustainable way.

The plan is complex. It presents a new vision for all of Mitchell Park, one Stevens believes will sustain it for the next 50 years. It involves the construction of new buildings, a revamp of operations, a new governance structure and a significant investment. ArtsMarket, Inc. is estimating the price tag for the redevelopment of the domes and Mitchell Park to be $62.9 million.

In ArtsMarket’s first pitch to the taskforce in May, Stevens told them to think big. Just repairing the domes, she said, was essentially an unsustainable project that would not generate any revenue, which the domes desperately need to survive. And now that her group has crunched the numbers and drawn up a proposal she’s even more certain. “If we just did the buildings I would have to say it’s not feasible, and I can’t find a way to make it feasible,” Stevens said. “So we’ve created a more complex plan, but one that we believe is eminently doable.”

51 percent of the total cost, under the proposed business plan, would come from sources other than General Obligation Bonds. They include Historic Tax Credits, New Market Tax Credits, Opportunity Zone Funds, PACE financing and a capital campaign. This leaves the county’s portion at just under $18 million. But some of these funds require the county to start making moves before the start of the next calendar year, Stevens said.

If the county doesn’t move fast on this, the project doesn’t work. Specifically, that’s because of the timing for Opportunity Zone investments (OZ) and New Market Tax Credits (NMTC), which are expected to make up approximately 30 percent of the capital funds for the project.  If Opportunity Zone investments are not attached to a project by the end of 2019, Stevens explained, then investors will only get 90 percent of the tax breaks they seek from OZ funds, and only 80 percent by 2021. So as time goes on, getting OZ financing for a project becomes increasingly difficult. OZ funding, and NMTC, from a financial perspective, go very well together. And major NMTC investors will already have projects in the pipeline by next spring, so those will need to be in place by the end of 2019 as well.

The timing is important because the redevelopment of the domes and Mitchell Park would be a phased project, with different pieces of the redevelopment coming together at different times over the next 10 to 15 years. But, funds like OZ investments need repayment within 10 years. The bottom line: to minimize county bonding for the project the county has to fully utilize outside financing mechanisms, and some of these mechanisms require the county to both act immediately and to have investments generating revenue to make repayment within a decade.

“It can be done,” Stevens said. “But it’s going to require not sitting around and waiting a couple of years for things to come together.”

So what would the county be getting from all this exertion? The ArtsMarket plan envisions Mitchell Park as an urban horticultural destination, that has revenue generating programming and event space, a restaurant, new exhibits and collections, a re-developed entranceway, new gardens and a number of infrastructure investments around the park. The classic architecture of the domes would remain, as would the mission of its current infrastructure, but just about everything else would be revamped.

The domes really need new a new operations strategy. They simply don’t generate enough revenue to support their repair, let alone their continued operations. And the county already has a harrowing revenue problem affecting every aspect of its operations. The ArtsMarket plan, according to Stevens, would greatly increase the revenue generating potential of the domes.

Another major piece of financing for the redevelopment is a capital campaign that asks area investors, companies and charitable organizations to commit funds to the redevelopment of the domes. This, too, comes with some strings attached, some more obvious than others.

First, the county can’t just do deferred maintenance on the domes and expect a capital campaign to help with that. “I’ve never seen anybody name deferred maintenance,” Stevens said, speaking of charitable donors. “I have seen them name bathrooms, but I’ve never seen them name deferred maintenance.” And second, the county has to do some bonding for the project. If the county doesn’t have skin in the game, no one will commit funds to a capital campaign.

The Task Force has to make their final recommendation to the county board in August, then it is up to the county board and County Executive Chris Abele to start moving — or not.

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Categories: MKE County, Real Estate

2 thoughts on “MKE County: Domes Proposal Requires Great Speed”

  1. just1paul says:

    The domes were new and cutting edge at the time. Step it up and do something new and cutting edge for these times.

  2. Barbara Richards says:

    Sounds like time to move forward, Milwaukee, Wisconsin!

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