County officials express frustration, others determination to save The Domes at parks committee meeting
Like so many Milwaukee County structures, the plant-filled glass beehive-shaped Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, known simply to many as the Domes, have long needed maintenance.
But there was heightened concern after a 2013 incident, when bits of concrete fell from high within the desert dome.
After a long and sometimes heated discussion during the Milwaukee County Parks committee Tuesday, there was no result or clear path forward for the future of The Domes.
The concrete crumbling within the dome for nearly 10 years now triggered what now seems a slow-motion string of events.
The Domes closed for a time to assure public safety. Then in 2016 the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to “pursue the repair and preservation of the existing Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes.”
The board approved the creation of a task force to come up with how to make that happen. The task force reached out for public input and held many of meetings. In 2019, the group shared its "new vision," which would revitalize The Domes and fold creative programming through the surrounding area of Mitchell Park.
The task force projected a price tag of $66 million, nearly half of which would spruce up The Domes. The group suggested a combination of tax incentives, along with private fundraising covering the lion’s share.
Tuesday, consultants hired by Milwaukee County’s Project Management Office shared their evaluation of the task force’s 2019 funding structure.
Consultant Rebecca Mitich with Husch Blackwell reviewed what she called the “funding stack,” starting with historical tax credits. Mitich concurred with the task force’s projection.
“[It] does appear to be a reasonable amount if the plans qualifies for these tax credits. We also believe it’s reasonable to anticipate The Domes will qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a requirement for historic tax credits,” Mitich says.
Mitich was less confident about other funding streams, including a $13.5 million private-sector capital campaign. “It doesn’t look like this was a full capital campaign feasibility study,” the consultant says.
Mitich recommended Milwaukee County undertake such a study as part of its next step of investigation. “It could very well be that there is another way to fund the plan, but all we were asked to do to look was to look at the capital stack of the plan as presented and evaluate that,” Mitich says.
Several parks committee members, including Supervisor Steve Taylor, expressed outrage —not with Mitich— but because no tangible progress has been made on The Domes’ future.
“I mean, this is a policy decision we took in 2016. It’s been six years and a lot has changed. Half the board is new. I can’t tell you that my position is the same as it was six years ago,” Taylor says.
Two new supervisors, including Dyango Zerpa want to make it known they’re committed to a future that includes The Domes.
“We’re all frustrated. This is a very complex issue but we can’t allow the complexity of this issue to get in the way of us saving a beloved Milwaukee institution. For us to have a strong public-private partnership to keep The Domes open, we need to make an investment ourselves to begin with,” Zerpa says.
Supervisor and parks committee member Juan Miguel Martinez grew up having family barbecues in Mitchell Park.
“I do I feel restoring the Domes is a viable plan if we make it a priority. It’s just about being able to move forward on these things that are being presented to us,” Martinez says. “You know, we just paid tens of millions to a private museum with no accountability, but we won’t invest in the Domes, which we as a County operate.”
Martinez is referring to the future home of the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Committee chair Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman acknowledged Martinez’s perspective.
“Supervisor Martinez makes a key point. Somehow money was made for the Milwaukee Public Museum, which was hundreds of millions of dollars. And no one is talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here. So where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Wasserman says.
But no clear path forward, or a committee vote came out of Tuesday’s meeting.