Graham Kilmer
MKE County

New Domes Plan Expected This Summer

Friends group working with Parks on final plan for Mitchell Park Domes. But will it work?

By - Apr 22nd, 2024 07:10 pm
Mitchell Park Domes' Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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

Christa Beall Diefenbach is trying to change the way people think about the Mitchell Park Domes.

As Executive Director of the Friends of the Domes, Diefenbach is working closely with Milwaukee County Parks on a plan for the Domes that will be ready this summer, and the hope, after a decade of public brainstorming, is that it will provide a definitive answer to the question of what will happen to these iconic local structures.

“We hired a team of really smart folks,” Diefenbach said, including architects, engineers and real estate development professionals to work on the project.

After many reports, and a Domes task force, and many public pronouncements from policymakers past and present, a lot has been said about the Domes and what should be done. Diefenbach and her organization are in some sense trying to overcome this long public memory.

First, if the the Domes are to last, the focus should be on ways to reenvision them, not restore them, Diefenbach said. That means “a sustainable business model that allows us to generate more revenue than we have expenses, so we can put away funds for rainy days and ensure that we’re not in a similar situation in the future.”

The friends group is not the first to approach the problem from this angle. This was the overarching theme of the plan produced by Arts Market LLC for the task force in 2019. The Arts Market consultants said the county should think big, and transform both the Domes and Mitchell Park. Expanding the project to include a revitalization of the surrounding park is another Arts Market idea that has stuck.

The primary challenge confronting the policymakers, parks officials and nonprofit organizations that have worked on a solution for the Domes is the cost. When chunks of concrete first started falling from the structure in 2013, the county was struggling to balance annual budgets. That struggle continues and the Domes are an expensive proposition. In 2023, Parks presented some high-level cost estimates to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors that ranged from $6 million to nearly $100 million. Even after all the years of reports and meetings, the response was shock.

The friends group and the parks department both believe the Domes need a solid plan for long-term revenue, or else the county will eventually find itself in the same place all over again.

Second, Diefenbach wants people to know that the Domes are stronger than some might think. Despite the falling chunks of concrete that kicked off the whole pursuit to save them, the Domes are “a bit of a fortress, really” Diefenbach said. The problem, she said, is that they aren’t watertight.

“When it rains hard outside, it rains in the Domes,” she said.

This was reflected in the cost estimates put together by The Concord Group for Parks. The construction consultancy estimated that the glass facade could be rebuilt with new glass and aluminum, and the rest of the structures repaired and modernized, for approximately $91 million.

Diefenbach and the friends group are tasked with making their vision for the Domes a compelling message for potential donors. The parks department sees the friends group playing an important role in fundraising for the Domes, and potentially becoming a nonprofit operator of the facility.

The friends group has begun looking for fundraising counsel to help it launch a capital campaign this year, Diefenbach said. A feasibility study completed in 2023 suggested such a campaign could be expected to raise approximately $20 million.

As we know, capital campaigns don’t happen overnight,” Diefenbach said, explaining that it will take years for a campaign to meet its fundraising goals.

For its plan, the friends group is also looking at state and federal funding sources, like New Market and Historic Tax Credits, she said. They are trying to produce a plan that does not place the financial burden of saving the Domes entirely on any one entity.

Like the plan to build a new Milwaukee Public Museum, the capital campaign will need to be paired with a financial commitment from the county. Diefenbach is trying to reframe the public commitment as not just an expense, but an investment that leverages additional money through fundraising and potentially state and federal funding sources.

There has always been support in county government for saving the Domes, in theory. But county policymakers have yet to hear a plan that compels them to put money behind it.

“So it is part of our strategy for Milwaukee County to make a commitment,” Diefenbach said. “I think it’s the only way that we would be able to move forward with private philanthropy, but, we’re hopeful that is what will happen.”

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

One thought on “MKE County: New Domes Plan Expected This Summer”

  1. mpbehar says:

    “Reenvisioning” the Domes is not unlike “Reimagining” County Parks and Senior Centers as intergenerational hubs of activiity, promoted by the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging’s Senior Centers Committee. Sustainable funding must include public (local, state, federal) and private partnerships (businesses, philanthropic). Kudos to Christa Bealle Diefenbach for her vision and actions on behalf of this essential national landmark!!

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