Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Donors Interested in Saving Mitchell Park

But not necessarily saving the domes. Local supervisor, Parks and philanthropic community moving toward a new Mitchell Park project.

By - Jul 19th, 2023 09:59 am
Mitchell Park Domes' Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mitchell Park Domes’ Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In order to save the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, county residents may need to say goodbye to the Mitchell Park Domes as they know them today.

For the past seven months, Milwaukee County Parks has worked on an expansive feasibility study for four potential options for the future of the domes, as laid out in a resolution passed by the Milwaukee County Board including demolition, repairing them, rebuilding them and the possibility of a “New Urban Botanical Park and Conservatory.”

The final option was the county board’s way of asking county officials to look into the feasibility of a plan produced in 2019 by Arts Market LLC for the board’s Domes Task Force. But a legal and financial review of that plan by the law firm Husch Blackwell and the accounting firm Baker Tilly had found the plan infeasible.

“It was an overly complex building plan,” Jim Tarantino told supervisors on the board’s Committee on Parks and Culture Tuesday. But with a study in hand already telling the county it likely can’t be done, parks had to “re-scope” the fourth option.

What Parks is looking at is a new horticultural conservatory and campus. This would mean a new addition built onto the conservatory and a “white box facility built to the standards of modern sustainable building design.” It would not mean keeping the domes and the greenhouses.

Part of the reason parks redefined the fourth option this way, Tarantino said, was because Parks was engaged in a fundraising study, to see what appetite there was in the local philanthropic community to support a domes project.

“We weren’t going to lead with the Arts Market report if we’ve already determined as a county that that’s not feasible,” Tarantino said.

Cost estimates and more detailed results of the study of the four options will be available in September, according to Parks.

Fundraising Potential

As it turns out, there is an appetite out there to support a project that would revitalize Mitchell Park and the domes. That’s what the fundraising study has concluded.

“And this is the first step towards an actual fundraising campaign,” Tarantino said. “This is not a one-off effort. You do not schedule meetings and engage with these conversations with potential donors without really following up on it in the future.”

Parks worked with Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt, a fundraising consultancy based in Chicago, on the study. It found that it’s reasonable to assume Parks could undertake a $20 million fundraising campaign in collaboration with the Friends of the Domes.

But, Tarantino told supervisors, “There was strong emphasis on the need for a compelling project and fixing the domes was not seen as compelling.”

Donors echoed an idea that was a key piece of the final Domes Task Force recommendation, which was to “think bigger and more holistically, not just about the domes, but about the overall park.”

Tarantino told supervisors that most of the potential donors were “pragmatic about the level of neglect and investment that would be needed” to restore or rebuild the domes.

The sense from the donor community was that the domes are “iconic but not historic,” Tarantino said. “They are an important part of Milwaukee’s culture, our skyline, our park system, but they could also serve as a catalyst to a broader fundraising campaign to fund other improvements in the conservatory and in the park.”

In other words, maintenance and repairs of the domes don’t interest donors, but the power of their symbolism could be harnessed for a much larger project in Mitchell Park. But the Friends of the Domes will need to play a critical role, Tarantino said.

In fact, the fundraising report indicates the Friends group needs to beef up its credibility and show that it can fundraise for something significant. But importantly, the county also needs to get its house in order and develop a clear plan for the future of the domes including how the public portions of the project will be financed.

Local Supervisor Martinez Changes Course

Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez, who represents Mitchell Park in his district, had previously worked to advance historic preservation as the primary strategy for saving the Domes and now says that he’s less interested in the historic preservation of the domes than he is in the revitalization of Mitchell Park.

Martinez indicated that after speaking with residents in the community surrounding Mitchell Park, he believes the constituency for saving the domes lies primarily outside of his district. Specifically, he feels it’s a suburban constituency.

His constituents and the residents in the neighborhood are more concerned with the park. Martinez said this doesn’t mean he favors demolishing the domes. Rather, their preservation is not the priority for him it once was.

“I’m not concerned with historic preservation anymore, to tell you the truth,” he told his colleagues. “I’m concerned with making these sustainable.”

Martinez said he likes the idea of pursuing a holistic Mitchell Park project that includes the domes as simply one aspect of the larger effort. “The thing is that, simply put, people from the neighborhood don’t go to the Domes much, and I want to change that.”

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

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