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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Advocates urge Milwaukee County to restore the Mitchell Park Domes

Michelle Maternowski
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory

A work group reported on its progress Tuesday in coming up with a plan for the future of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, commonly known as the Domes.

>> Update On Challenges Facing The Milwaukee County Domes

The more than half-century-old structures have long been in need of maintenance. Concerns spiked when a piece of concrete fell inside the Desert Dome in 2016. A long-range restoration plan still hasn’t been set in motion.

Several people, including members of a task force that issued its recommendations in 2019, shared their perspectives with WUWM in hopes they will influence Milwaukee County supervisors' decision on the Domes' future.

Bill Lynch would have a hard time tallying the number of hours he’s spent thinking about the Domes’ future.

Back in 2016, after crumbling concrete hit the Desert Dome floor, Milwaukee County leaders asked Lynch, a county resident and volunteer, to chair a task force to develop a “comprehensive long-term plan” for the Domes.

"We learned that in order to preserve what goes on in the Domes themselves, it's absolutely necessary to invest in other facilities to support that activity," Lynch said. "And what was really exciting was to start thinking in terms of Mitchell Park as a whole, not just the Domes in planning a way forward."

Multiple consultants, engineers, and architects have provided input along the way.

A vision emerged to breathe new life into the structures and their programming, and create opportunities for the community to plug into educational programs about topics like adapting to a changing environment to growing food locally.

"The programming could be much more broad and comprehensive and a lot more fun. If we had music and food and plants and people, that would be a wonderful combination," Lynch said.

The approach could also create opportunities for potential revenue streams.

Lynch said the task force concluded that the Domes’ future must be grounded in partnerships.

“Partnerships with both government and private entities. We see a way forward that depends very heavily on having strong community partners,” Lynch said.

Lynch said the task force worked hard to make its process public and transparent, and he believes Milwaukee County must do the same as it moves forward.

“Every meeting was open to the public, and we held them at the time of day people could attend. We did everything we could to make it a transparent process,” Lynch said.

September 2019, county residents and supervisors gathered inside the Domes Annex to hear the task force's recommendations.
Dawn McCarthy
September 2019, county residents and supervisors gathered inside the Domes Annex to hear the task force's recommendations.

In autumn of 2019, the task force laid out its vision to a crowd, including all of Milwaukee County’s supervisors.

>> Proposed Plan Restores Mitchell Park Domes And The Green Space Surrounding It

The board did not act on the task force’s recommendations.

But another task force member, Dawn McCarthy, remained optimistic. “Some really good news came after the task force disbanded,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said subsequent testing revealed that it would not be prohibitively expensive to restore the intricate glass domes.

"At a cost estimate less than $20 million, a far lower number than has been often cited," McCarthy said. "And then Pierce Engineering found the concrete to be in good condition, and as long as there were repairs made during the reglazing, [it] would provide for the Domes to last generations to come."

Jennifer Sandy sees the Domes through a couple of lenses. She is the Chicago-based field director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 2016, it designated the Domes as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country.

“This remains incredibly important to us as one of our national treasures and on our endangered list," Sandy said. "And we consistently have tried to share too that other communities have figured out how to do this kind of thing, complex publicly-owned facilities."

Sandy said if Milwaukee County decides to restore the Domes, federal and state historic tax credits could cover up to 40% of the cost.

Sandy also looks at the domes through her experience as a mother. When her own daughter was four, they visited the Domes for the first time.

One child's impression of the Domes.
Jennifer Sandy
One child's impression of the Domes.

“My daughter still talks about the Domes fairly regularly and even draws pictures of them. It really made an impression on her,” Sandy said.

Sandy said, imagine how a program-enriched Domes and Mitchell Park could influence kids who live nearby or far away?

She too is optimistic about the future of the Domes. Since the National Trust launched its most endangered list in 1988, Sandy said it has galvanized preservation efforts in more than 95% of the 300-plus sites identified.

As for the county-staffed project team considering the future of the Domes, it told the Milwaukee County Parks, Energy & Environment Committee Tuesday it plans to reach out to the public for comment in March and April of 2022.

Team member Nikki Todd said the aim is carry out an equitable outreach strategy.

“So of course that includes the neighborhood residents; it includes Milwaukee county residents in general; it includes those educators that take their, you know one of the largest constituencies of the Domes is of course students, so we’d want to make sure that group is really valued in terms of their feedback,” Todd said.

The team anticipates county board approval of a path forward for the Domes next September.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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