Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Public Likes Domes Plan

They want to save the Domes, as does county board. But can officials move quickly enough?

By - Sep 19th, 2019 01:30 pm
Rendering of redevelopment of Mitchell Park.

Rendering of redevelopment of Mitchell Park.

At a public meeting Wednesday night the Milwaukee County board heard loud and clear from interested constituents that they wanted to keep the domes.

The Board of Supervisors convened to formally receive a proposal from the Milwaukee County Task Force on the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes that outlines a plan to rehabilitate and redevelop not just the domes but also Mitchell Park.

The plan was developed by ArtsMarket LLC., a consultant hired by the county in the spring for the final phase of the three-year task force. ArtsMarket proposes a $66 million historic redevelopment of the domes and Mitchell Park, with $13.5 million of that coming from Milwaukee County. The rest of the financing will be a layer cake of tax credits and private funds from a capital campaign.

The supervisors heard public comment during the meeting that overwhelmingly favored saving the domes. Some spoke against the plan proposed by ArtsMarket, yet still favored saving the domes. And many more told the board how important the domes are to their lives and personal connection with Milwaukee.

The plan has the endorsement of a few local advocacy organizations that focus on parks and historic sites. Preserve Our Parks and the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance both enthusiastically endorsed the ArtsMarket plan. 

Craig Wiroll, Executive Director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, said the alliance has heard from thousands of Milwaukeeans, tourists, architectural fans and Clarke Square residents who “passionately want the domes to remain a strong cultural asset and destination.”

The ArtsMarket plan is designed to save the domes and sustain them for 50 years. The business plan is also estimated to generate approximately 300 jobs at the domes and Mitchell Park once it is completed. Until it was proposed to the task force in July the county had not seen a plan that did this.

If followed to a tee, the plan will repair the domes, bring a restaurant and wedding venues to the park, a new entranceway to the domes, new gardens and landscaping around the park and a number of infrastructure investments that rehabilitate and redevelop Mitchell Park. It would also revamp programming at the domes with new exhibits and collections that attract return customers.

The revenue generating elements of the plan are a key to its success. As an audit by the comptroller found, the domes have serious issues with generating sustainable revenue, which affects their long term viability. And in the short term, the revenue generating changes will help pay off some of the financing used to redevelop the domes and Mitchell Park.

The plan is already catching the eyes of investors interested in the proposed tax credits the county may go after for the project. Louise K. Stevens, lead consultant and founder of ArtsMarket said, “I’m getting calls from investment groups in New Jersey that want to do this project.”

Stevens also said the county’s financial commitment could be reduced with additional funds that may be available at the federal level. But, she said, “I’m not going to say that we’re sure of this.”

From the start, ArtsMarket told the task force that speed was essential to make the plan work. The proposal is built on a roughly 10-year financing timeline that has funds coming in during the first years that will need to be repaid within the decade. Specifically, applications for Opportunity Zone Tax Credits will need to be put together before the end of this calendar year for the county to get the most out of them.

The offices of the Milwaukee County Comptroller and Corporation Counsel are reviewing the plans put together by ArtsMarket for financial and legal feasibility. These reports need to come back to the county board before any action will take place. Asked whether the county appears to be moving fast enough, Stevens said, at this point “It’s hard to say.”

Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb said he thought the county would likely start working on the proposal before the end of the year. Whether the proposal will survive due diligence and the legislative process is another thing.

“What we have is a roadmap and a vision.” Lipscomb said. “There are technical elements that need to get tested a bit, evaluate which elements are most viable.”

Lipscomb’s takeaway from the meeting Wednesday night is that the policy of the board has been validated by the public. That approach is to maintain the domes and “build an organization and a park around it that is more than just the one set of buildings, a broader vision,” as Lipscomb puts it.

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