Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Saga Of The Domes Continues

Years after task force report and consultant analysis, county officials finally reviewing the options.

By - Sep 15th, 2021 08:13 pm
The Domes. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Domes. Photo by Dave Reid.

So much has happened since the last time county policy makers formally paid attention to the aging Mitchell Park Domes.

Since 2019, the leadership on both the Milwaukee County Board and in the county executive’s office has changed; and the county, like the rest of the world, was plunged into the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic, all non-essential county government projects were put on hold while officials prioritized responding to the pandemic and all the social and financial challenges it produced.

One of the projects sidelined during this time was the years-long project to repair the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, known as the domes, which are failing both structurally and financially. Now after nearly two years in limbo, the Office of Grants and Special projects — newly created by County Executive David Crowley — is moving the project forward; and it has created a timeline for a final decision on the matter by May 2022.

At a meeting of the board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee on Tuesday, Nichole Todd, senior analyst for grants and special projects, presented a timeline for a decision to finally be made about the domes.

The big picture is that the domes are not sustainable in the long term, structurally or financially. They don’t produce enough revenue to sustain operations — even during years when they aren’t closed for construction — so business as usual will not sustain them financially over the coming decades, and redevelopment of the domes comes with a massive price tag that seems out of reach for the cash-strapped county and its Parks Department.

Attendance has been steadily declining at the domes since at least the 1970’s. That’s particularly concerning as the revenue from admission has made up approximately 80% of the facility’s revenue in recent years, according to an audit by the Milwaukee County Comptroller. In 2016 the domes were closed for repairs. Specifically, steel mesh netting was put up to hold back and catch pieces of the crumbling structure that were in danger of falling. During that year, with the domes closed to the public, revenue for the facility dropped by about 60%.

The same year, the Domes Task Force was convened. This body was created by a county board resolution in 2015 which also formally established that it’s the policy of the county to “repair and preserve” the domes.

Since 2015, the county has spent $1.6 million on domes-related planning and emergency structural repairs. More than $350,000 has been spent on long term planning, which includes planning by the Domes Task Force.

In the three years that the task force worked on a plan that would meet the needs and match the spirit of the board’s domes policy it worked with a string of consultants that proposed everything from demolishing the domes to turning them into a theme-park style destination complete with zip lines and rock climbing.

The one that got the most discussion was a complicated $66 million plan developed by ArtsMarket LLC, a consultant hired by the county to assist the task force in planning a way to save the domes. The plan called for massively overhauling not only the domes but all of Mitchell Park.

The consultants developed a plan that required the county to move very quickly and aggressively to put together a complicated financial stack. The ArtsMarket plan would redevelop the buildings, revamp operations and programming, establish a new governance structure (allowing the county to go after tax credits for redevelopment) and it all came with an approximately $66 million price tag.

The plan almost received the unanimous endorsement of the Domes Task Force. Parks Director Guy Smith was the only member of the commission who abstained from approval. At the time he told Urban Milwaukee he was withholding support for the plan until it received legal and financial review by corporation counsel and the comptroller, respectively.

The plan received a muted reaction from most of the county board. Then-Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. appeared to sum up the general consensus on the recommendation that took three years to produce, when he said some form of the plan was likely possible.

Sup. Sheldon Wasserman has been the most vocal opponent of the ArtsMarket plan, calling it an “embarrassment.”

In 2019, the board passed two amendments that provided funding for corporation counsel and the comptroller to review the plan. Wasserman was the only supervisor to vote against the review, expressing no faith that an additional review would conclude the complicated plan was feasible. “Do we really need to spend $100,000 for corporation counsel and for the comptroller’s office to look at this proposal?” he asked in 2019. “ We are wasting money.”

Now, the county is resuming work on the domes and has created a timeline for developing a “path forward” by May 2022. A domes special projects team, with the help of outside legal and financial firms, will analyze the plan recommended by the task force and report regularly to the board with updates on feasibility and potential options for the future of the domes.

Analysis of the ArtsMarket plan by corporation counsel in 2019 questioned revenue and cost estimates, calling them “aspirational guesstimates.” It said the plan was not actually an “operationalizable, detailed business plan.”

Though the board has not formally considered the domes in nearly two years, citizens, advocates and the neighborhood supervisor have been working in the background.

Sup. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, who is finishing out her second and final term on the county board, has been working on a solution for the domes since she took office in 2018. When Crowley created the new Office of Grants and Special Projects, it was Ortiz-Velez that went to it about the domes project.

The problems posed by the domes, Ortiz-Velez said, have been “ongoing for years and it’s not going anywhere.” Ortiz-Velez has been the greatest advocate for the domes during her time on the county board, as it is in her district. She strongly supports preserving them and revitalizing Mitchell Park.

Jeremy Ebersole, director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, has been an advocate, along with his organization, pushing for a resolution to the solve the domes dilemma. In a comment to the board Tuesday, he urged supervisors to “move forward with confidence toward a long-term solution for the domes that preserves this community landmark for decades to come.” Ebersole, speaking on behalf of the preservation commission said, “We would also encourage the board to give credence to the incredible work completed by the citizens of the Domes Task Force… the Task Force developed a vision for a way forward that acknowledges the challenges while focusing on the possibilities.”

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Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

2 thoughts on “MKE County: Saga Of The Domes Continues”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    America treats it’s historical landmarks the same way it treats its senior citizens. “Just let them rot away from neglect until they die”. No wonder why thousands of Americans shoot each other every day.

    Germany takes care of all its senior citizens and all its historical landmarks. My mother received her pension from Germany until she passed away at 84 years of age. Germany has no poverty, very little crime, and a proud heritage of beautiful, historical, breathtaking architecture.

  2. Polaris says:

    Sad that the numbers don’t work. A public-private partnership is likely the only way to go, here. Every year that passes is making it less likely that the Domes will survive…

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