Graham Kilmer
MKE County

New Plan Emerging To Save The Domes

Friends of the Domes takes on bigger role in planning for Domes' future.

By - Nov 16th, 2023 12:01 pm
Mitchell Park Domes' Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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

There is growing optimism about the future of the Mitchell Park Domes and it is being driven, by the park’s nonprofit friend’s group.

The Friends of the Domes, founded in 1989, has begun to assert itself in the planning for the future of The Domes. The organization recently finished developing a “vision” for the future of The Domes that aims to create a sustainable model for both the physical structures and the operations of The Domes as a horticultural conservatory.

High-level, conceptual planning by Milwaukee County Parks sees the friends group playing a critical role in any future Domes project. The role includes leading a public fundraising campaign that aims to raise at least $20 million, and, potentially, taking on a greater role in the operations and financing of The Domes; something akin to the role the Zoological Society of Milwaukee plays at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

“The county has been kind of waiting for years, for somebody to come forward to say they’re going to help fund all of the maintenance needs of The Domes,” said Jim Tarantino, deputy director of Milwaukee County Parks.

For now, the details are being kept relatively quiet. The organization is rolling a number of ideas from previous planning efforts by consultants and Milwaukee County Parks into their vision for The Domes. The friends group thinks all three Domes can be saved and that such a project would entail revitalizing all of Mitchell Park.

However, the organization is approaching the challenge of The Domes with a sober appraisal of the financial and political landscape it is operating in.

Christa Beall Diefenbach, executive director of the friends group, told Urban Milwaukee that her organization’s mission has focused on maintaining an urban horticultural conservatory in Mitchell Park. “And if that was The Domes, great,” she said, “and if that needed to be a new conservatory because The Domes were unable to be saved, then that would be okay, too.”

The position puts the organization in lock-step with Milwaukee County Parks, which has, as a matter of policy, placed more value on the continued existence of a horticultural conservatory than The Domes themselves.

The Plan

The vision adopted by the group has three general areas and echoes many of the ideas Parks has about what a Domes project needs to address.

First, the outdated facility needs to be addressed. The Domes are in notoriously bad condition. Falling chunks of concrete spurred county policymakers to begin working on the issue in the first place. But the facility needs more than maintenance and repairs.

So right now, a lot of what is what currently exists impedes our ability to generate sufficient revenue in order to have at least a break-even budget,” Diefenbach said. 

One example, Diefenbach said, is the lobby. It’s not big enough, so when it’s cold and there’s a line for a special event, sometimes potential patrons simply leave because they’re forced to wait outside. The group would like to see the floor plan reworked within the existing building to fix the issue and others, as well as the development of a new structure similar to one that Parks has proposed during its own conceptual planning. The ancillary building would provide new event, educational and office space.

Second, is Mitchell Park. The park is in great need of investment and programming and is critical to the future operations of The Domes, Diefenbach said. “And so we would invest money into the park itself, activating the park and also managing ongoing programming within the park and not just in the conservatory.”

And third, The Domes need a sustainable business model. Even if funding is secured for major maintenance and improvements, Diefenbach said, if there isn’t funding to keep up with the maintenance needs of the structures, then The Domes will eventually end up in the same condition they are in today. It’s thought that structural improvements and new programming at the Domes would improve revenue.

Tarantino said The Domes likely need an endowment fund to help the county pay for long-term maintenance

In September,  county supervisors were floored to hear the rough cost estimates assigned to four potential options for the domes: demolition, renovation, rebuilding The Domes, or developing a new “Urban Botanical Park and Conservatory” based on the recommendation of the Domes Task Force, which finished its work in 2019.

These initial estimates were also accompanied by a fundraising feasibility study that estimated approximately $20 million in private donations could be raised for a project that redeveloped The Domes and Mitchell Park. That study relied on wide-ranging cost estimates, Diefenbach said.

“All of this requires us to have very sharpened pencils,” she said.

There needs to be a specific plan endorsed by Milwaukee County Parks and the County Board and it needs to have a hard cost estimate. The group will not be able to secure significant donations if variables like cost and project plans are not firmed up.

“Nobody wants to be flying the plane while they’re building it,” she said.

Diefenbach said the friends group is getting closer to a hard cost estimate for its plan, but declined to provide a number. That estimate though, is being assembled under the pretense that for every $1 the county provides, there is a match of $2 from other sources; $1 from private donations and another $1 provided by grants, tax credits or other public entities outside of the county.

County Board Controls The Domes’ Future

Once definite plans for a project are assembled, it will be up to the board to push it over the finish line.

“We’re going to need a county commitment to this fundraising campaign,” Tarantino said.

Without a funding commitment from the county, a fundraising campaign of the magnitude needed for The Domes will be impossible. Parks is not wholesale endorsing the plan being assembled by the friends group. But, Tarantino said, as the group takes on the responsibility of managing a massive capital campaign, “I think they have the right to advocate for changes to the building because they’re more and more invested in it.”

Tarantino said Parks is working to have a plan to present to the board in the near future. “So that way, a year from now, we’re talking about fundraising, not ‘What’s the future of The Domes?'”

Friends of the Domes is already actively engaged in The Domes. It manages the facility’s membership program, runs the gift shop and hosts educational programming. The 501(c)(3) organization’s website lists 11 employees and its 2021 federal 990 filing shows revenue of $1.08 million and assets of $2.6 million.

The Domes

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

4 thoughts on “MKE County: New Plan Emerging To Save The Domes”

  1. ZeeManMke says:

    Interesting pictures. I see no minorities in any of them. I’ve seen minorities at the Domes when they had free days. Maybe this is part of the problem.

  2. Colin says:

    @ZeeManMke that SAME gallery of pics have been used for the domes since this site’s inception it feels like. they’re nowhere near new, lol.

  3. says:

    One thing that is (perhaps intentionally) not mentioned is the deteriorating neighborhood of the Domes and Mitchell Park. About a month ago, a local news station was planning to cover a meeting about the future of the Domes but instead covered sa drive-by shooting that was happening at the same time. Sad. I’ve lived in Milwaukee since 1983, and used to visit the Domes frequently. Not so much anymore. I am dependent on public transit, and no longer feel safe walking the few blocks from the bus stop to the marvelous Domes. Like it or not, the neighborhood is also an issue, and if the Domes are to remain in their present location, a major cleanup of that area needs to occur. Several folks I know who live in the burbs used to visit yearly for the model railroad show and Winterwonderland, but no more. They no longer feel safe in that neighborhood. Sad but true.

  4. ZeeManMke says:

    How could I not agree with

    Michell Park was once a real gem. Now it is close to being
    an eyesore. It is embarrassing. If 1/1000th of the effort that
    goes into the Zoo, Lake Park or other County endeavors was applied
    it could be a great park again.

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