Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Domes Costs Shock Supervisors

'I think we're just in shock,' supervisor says on estimate of up to $100 million for Domes.

By - Sep 12th, 2023 03:59 pm
Mitchell Park Domes' Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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

Milwaukee County Supervisors were shocked to hear cost estimates for potential Mitchell Park Domes projects, including repair, replacement or demolition.

For years Milwaukee County Parks officials have warned supervisors that saving the Domes would be a very expensive undertaking. But, despite this, when members of the board’s Committee on Parks and Environment heard a package of general cost estimates Tuesday, they were floored.

“I think we’re just in shock. Point blank,” said Sup. Sheldon Wasserman. “I think my colleagues and I are just in shock about this proposal and really what faces us as supervisors and what faces us as a community.”

In 2022, supervisors were frustrated that there remained no solution or clear policy for the dome despite nearly a decade of emergency repairs and a task force that worked on the issue for three years. The board passed legislation asking Milwaukee County Parks to develop cost estimates for potential Domes projects including demolition, repairs, rebuilding and the construction a new conservatory that would use one of the domes.

Parks officials presented general cost estimates for those four options that were developed with the help of The Concord Group, a local construction consultancy. The costs ranged from just over $6 million to nearly $100 million.

The total cost of demolition was estimated at approximately $6.4 million. This would mean demolition of the entire Domes structure, including The Domes themselves and the entrance lobby area. The greenhouses would be preserved.

To repair just what’s broken and make needed upgrades, The Domes and continue business as usual, the county would spend approximately $29 million and then another $30 million over the next 20 years, called “lifecycle costs.”

Completely rebuilding The Domes would cost the county $91 million and another $11.4 million in maintenance over the next 20 years. The $91 million option includes rebuilding the glass structures with new glass and aluminum framing and making all necessary upgrades to modernize and improve the facility.

Building a new conservatory that saves one dome would cost approximately $64.7 to $69.4 million and approximately $11 million in maintenance over the next 20 years. This option pulled in some ideas from the work of the Domes Task Force and also included a new one: “mothballing” the other two domes — closing them to the public but keeping them serviceable — for a few years to give policymakers time to find a solution to save them, as opposed to their immediately demolition.

Deputy Parks Director Jim Tarantino cautioned supervisors against trying to budget with these figures. He said they “are for general comparison purposes.” A project needs to be selected so that detailed planning and design can be undertaken to come up with exact cost estimates.

“These are all expensive options, which is probably why it’s been challenging to make a decision until this date,” Tarantino said. “But we have to change the course of discussions.”

Parks Director Guy Smith told supervisors it was his hope that the figures presented would initiate the process of “building some consensus towards a path forward.

Supervisors, though, were astounded by the figures presented.

“These amounts are staggering,” said Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez, who represents the area that includes The Domes and Mitchell Park.

“Unless we get some spectacularly munificent donation from some wealthy benefactor I really don’t see how we can move forward on any of these other [demolition] and I absolutely hate to say that because I love The Domes,” said Sup. Steven Shea.

Parks had previously paid for a fundraising study to determine what the project could reasonably expect to raise from private donors. The study determined $20 million was a realistic figure. But, importantly, to reach that number there would need to be a dynamic project that did more than simply repair or reconstruct The Domes. To raise the money, a project like the new conservatory option coupled with large investments in the wider park were determined to be a project that had the best chance of attracting donors.

Sup. Felesia Martin noted that she is most interested in preserving the horticultural conservancy that The Domes contains, as opposed to simply preserving the architecture that the structures represent. Martin reiterated a call for “definitive action” on the question of The Domes.

Wasserman suggested putting the question to voters. “I really am thinking that this might be best left for the general public in a binding referendum for Milwaukee County residents to take.”

County Research Director Steve Cady explained that the county could hold a binding referendum on whether or not the county should increase its property tax levy to pay for a Domes project. Under state law the county can raise property taxes to pay down debt.

Martinez has recently taken the position that investments in Mithell Park are more important than preserving The Domes. He has explained that he hopes the two projects can be married, but that the former is more important to his constituents.

“I can see already that everybody in Milwaukee is going to say, ‘yes, keep The Domes open, of course.’ You know, like, it’s going to cost $67 million? ‘Oh, well, that doesn’t matter, whatever you got to do, right?'” said the supervisor.

Parks has been proceeding along this project focused on saving the county’s horticultural conservatory, which existed for more than 50 years before The Domes were built.

The Domes do not generate enough revenue to support the horticultural and educational operations of The Domes. The county provides at least $1 million to support the facility’s operations annually. And, despite this, the county is already operating a skeleton crew at The Domes. When The Domes opened in the 1960s there were 39 staff for operations and maintenance. Now there are 13.

“We cannot continue to operate on this model,” Tarantino said. “If we’re going to continue to prioritize a conservatory in the parks system, we need to enhance our operating support. We need to grow our staff to provide maintenance and care which will prevent the decay that we’ve seen due to lack of maintenance over the last 40 years… These systems are going to fail at some point in the near future.”

The point of these new cost estimates, Tarantino explained, was to give policymakers uncomplicated, hard numbers just for work on The Domes. Other considerations relating to what will happen to the rest of Mitchell Park or how The Domes would be operated to generate more revenue cannot be productively entertained until the board has a clearly stated policy for the future of The Domes. It’s up to the board, now, to chart a future for the facility.

The Domes

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Related Legislation: File 23-787

Categories: MKE County, Parks

3 thoughts on “MKE County: Domes Costs Shock Supervisors”

  1. ZeeManMke says:

    All these fake expressions of shock. These supervisors think the public are idiots.

    This is the same County that sold land worth millions for $1. And then gave the Milwaukee Bucks a $200 million freebie gift. So “shock” at $100 million for the public and this local treasure while “yawn” for giving away $200 million to billionaires.

  2. AttyDanAdams says:

    We don’t need a referendum for you to hide behind, Sup. Wasserman. This is what we elect our leaders for – to make the hard, but in this case, obvious decisions. Demo the Domes and let’s move on.

  3. ZeeManMke says:

    I remember this County Executive who liked to demolish historic County buildings in the middle of the night without following any rules, codes, ordinances or the law. Demolishing the Domes condemns Mitchell Park to becoming another dump with all the harm that flows from a lousy park. There is more going on here than the Domes.

    I would guess Milwaukee County parks attract ten to twenty times the number who see ball games at Am Fam Field. While the Big Business crowd calls for people with next to nothing to pay for the Brewers, they never mention funding for our parks. That is because they cannot exploit our parks and natural beauty means little to them. I have no interest in what the Big Fat Cats think about public funding for the Brewers while attacking our city.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us