Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Task Force Rejects ARPA Funding for Domes

Supervisors want to use $19 million in pandemic stimulus funds to begin fixing Mitchell Park Domes.

By - Sep 8th, 2022 08:11 pm
The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

Should Milwaukee County use federal COVID-19 stimulus funding to begin renovations on the domes Mitchell Park Domes?

Four Milwaukee County Supervisors are trying to do just that. But their plan was widely panned by Milwaukee County Parks and a task force evaluating proposals for spending the county’s $183 million allocation from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The four supervisors sponsored legislation that would, if passed, direct the county to allocate $19 million in ARPA funds toward the restoration of the  Mitchell Park Domes. The figure represents approximately 10% of the county’s total ARPA allocation. The county board has already approved approximately $127 million, or 70%, in spending from its ARPA allocation.

ARPA funding has proven the most flexible of the stimulus funding released by the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The domes project would fall under an ARPA spending category called Revenue Recovery. The ARPA Task Force carved out $115 million for revenue recovery projects, and $85.5 million has already been approved.

Supervisors Juan Miguel Martinez, Dyango Zerpa, Ryan Clancy and Felesia Martin sponsored the legislation allocating funds to the Domes project. The resolution states that “preservation and continuity of the Domes has already involved extensive public engagement with broad input and support… and there is no better utility for one-time use of ARPA dollars than to make a transformational investment toward ensuring the survival of an iconic and historic community asset such as the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory Domes.”

The domes were designed by local architect Donald Grieb and built in 1959. Recently, a resolution was authored requesting the county pursue getting the domes listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They would then become eligible for historic preservation tax credits to assist with funding the restoration of the domes.

“The choice is not ultimately between the domes and other priorities,” Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance told the task force, “but between using federal dollars to preserve the domes while we have them or using county and taxpayer dollars in the future to either preserve or demolish them.”

At the task force meeting, Martinez said approving the funding would kick-start the Domes project, saying “We are the ones that have to start the process.” He said that providing this funding would be a signal to potential donors and philanthropists. “We have to be able to say that we have a stake in this.”

In their resolution, the supervisors agree that fixing the glazing is just the beginning. The resolution also notes that sustaining the domes in the future will involve more than repairing the buildings. Given the mismatch in county revenue and the cost to operate the government, caused in large part by more than a decade of frozen state aid, maintaining the domes will be a drain on the ever-dwindling resources of Milwaukee County Parks. This is because the domes do not generate enough revenue to cover the cost of their operations.

The parks department, however, does not think that a piecemeal approach should be taken to the restoration of the domes. “Saving the domes means having a serious plan to save the plant collection, set the facility on a sustainable path in terms of operations, reduce energy consumption… and having an actionable plan to address the other, tens of millions of dollars worth of repairs that are still needed to keep the domes open,” said Jim Tarantino, deputy director of parks.

The $19 million ARPA allocation proposed by the supervisors would specifically target the glazing system, which is the glass and aluminum shell that wraps the underlying concrete structure. The figure is based on a preliminary estimate provided in 2019 by architecture and engineering consultant ZS LLC, which is working on a glazing repair study for the county. The funding in the resolution is actually $500,000 short of the 2019 estimated cost.

Parks department deputy director James Tarantino told the ARPA Task Force that inflationary pressures have brought the estimated cost for repairing the glazing system closer to $30 million, if the work was to begin in 2023. ZS LLC is working with the county’s Architecture and Engineering Division to finish a final mockup of their design to repair the system, and that’s expected by the end of the year. “We’ll have an updated cost, closer to $30 million than $19 million.”

Tarantino said funding restoration of the glazing system without plans or funding identified for the rest of the project “is like putting a down payment down on a house without having a mortgage approved or even having a lender to tell you that a mortgage is possible.”

The deputy director said the restoration of the domes should involve a well-planned, phased approach, with dedicated funding that addresses all the “interrelated systems” like the masonry base and concrete structure, which will need to be damaged to fix the glass glazing because the aluminum frame is set into the concrete.

The domes is one of the most complex structures we have in Milwaukee County,” Tarantino said. “We cannot take a piecemeal approach.”

Members of the task force were similarly uncomfortable with the plan proposed by supervisors.  “I would kind of like to know what the total plan is,” said Milwaukee County Comptroller Scott Manske, a member of the ARPA Task Force.

Jeffery Roman, director of the county’s Office of Equity and a member of the task force, said he was concerned that the county would not be able to expend the funds before its legal deadline without a fully fleshed out plan. “I think that there’s a lot more work that we need to do,” he said.

The task force unanimously voted to reject the proposal. Sup. Shawn Rolland, co-chair of the ARPA task force, said the vote should not be interpreted as “an indication that this is settled in any way in particular.”

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

4 thoughts on “MKE County: Task Force Rejects ARPA Funding for Domes”

  1. kaygeeret says:

    I am really conflicted by this topic.

    The Domes have been a fact of life for much of my life.

    I have visited about 4 times that I remember.

    I also remember trying to be impressed. The desert was very different from our environment, and I found it interesting. And then I visited real desert environments and was awed,

    The flower dome was lovely and then I went to Boehner Gardens and was awed.

    I don’ really remember the third dome.

    I think the idea has merit – introduce us to things we don’t know, but they are so static. They really don’t convey the reality.
    And yet, not everyone has had the privilege that I have had to be able to travel to and experience other environments.

    So, I remain conflicted.

  2. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Here’s an idea for getting the money to repair the Domes.

    Let’s tell Joe Biden that the Domes are a weapon system designed to destroy Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, El Salvador, Libya, Nicaragua, North Korea, Belarus, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Myanmar, and the Solomon Islands.

    Biden will give us $250 billion within 24 hours.

  3. Polaris says:

    Good point @kaygeeret. It’s a place many hold dear but few visit, or visit rarely, And, once there…what do you get?

    I’d be all for reimagining Mitchell Park. As you’ve described it, the Domes are of a bygone era. What good will saving the structure be if what’s inside remains the same?

  4. nickzales says:

    Mitchell Park is in serious need of an upgrade.

    The three Domes: Tropical, Arid and the Show Dome with rotating exhibits. That is what is inside of them.

    The county had hundreds of millions in tax money for the Bucks. Now they are shoveling money at a new museum. Rather than fix what we have, the County supervisors love ribbon cuttings and talking up new projects. Meanwhile, they fail to keep up with the old projects…like the park system.

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