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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

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

Have you wondered what will become of the iconic Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, better known as The Domes, on Milwaukee’s near south side?

A task force hopes to convince county leaders and residents that both The Domes and the green space around it can be restored by building partnerships and raising funds.

Bill Lynch has seen fellow Milwaukee County Task Force on the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes members come and go during his nearly three-year tenure as chair. The process has been as complicated as the group's name.

More than 50 years old, The Domes have needed maintenance for a long time. Over the years, various consultants presented their take on whether the three glass domes — each housing unique plant habitats — should and/or could be preserved.

Credit Engberg Anderson
The plan recommends a full-service restaurant in the “hidden” Dome. The restaurant would have its own entrance and farm-to-table gardens.

Lynch says the task force has learned that The Domes, although in need of attention, are structurally sound. 

"Very sound and probably in better shape than we were thinking before they did their detailed analysis," he says.

The group also learned that the public overwhelmingly supports a future that includes The Domes in Mitchell Park. And that the 61-acre park The Domes is in is equally as important as The Domes themselves.

Lynch believes the plan the task force is endorsing provides both creative and forward-thinking solutions. The $66 million plan would unfold over 10 years, starting with crews rehabilitating the three-domed complex. Adjacent existing space could be transformed into a restaurant with outdoor seating. A new entrance would welcome visitors into The Domes and also provide classroom space.

Credit Engberg Anderson
Here's the proposed urban agriculture gardens and orchards.

"There's so much that can be done outside the physical structure of The Domes themselves to reinvent this place and make it a place for fun and learning and job development and job training," Lynch says.

He says conversations have already begun in the broader community to fuel partnerships.

Charlie Uihlein, executive director of Teens Grow Greens, likes the proposed Mitchell Park Learning, Wellness and Horticultural Campus idea.

"I think that nonprofits, sometimes there needs to be a reason for them to work together … It amplifies the mission of each one of our organizations and that’s what we should be doing," Uihlein says.

Ian Bautista says Mitchell Park and The Domes represent a big chunk of the geography of the Clarke Square neighborhood. He leads an initiativeto build the neighborhood's health and economic wellness.

Bautista has also been part of The Domes task force – he calls the proposed plan visionary. When fully operational, it projects creating more than 300 new family-supporting jobs – some on-site, others in the neighborhood.

Bautista says those jobs also send a signal: "That the county and all of the partners are absolutely committed to urban Milwaukee and making sure that we’re doing everything that we can to stay up with stewardship, the environment ... but we’re also very committed as a community to economic justice and community economic development."

Credit Susan Bence
The remains of Mitchell Park amphitheater. Ian Bautista says Clarke Square neighbors remember polka concerts and dancing in the park. The proposed plan envisions re-imagining the amphitheater.

So who’s going to pay for this plan?

Milwaukee County’s share would be $13.5 million spread over 10 years. A combination of private and public tax incentives, as well as private fundraising initiatives would cover the lion’s share of the $66 million budget — $30 million of that would restore The Domes.

Jennifer Sandy, associate field director with National Trust for Historic Preservation, says historic tax credits could help fund that piece.

"There's a federal historic tax credit and that provides a 20% tax credit for historic buildings. Those are buildings that have been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and we know that The Domes meets that criteria. There’s also a state historic tax credit," Sandy says.

LISTEN: Milwaukee County Budget Problems Raise Concerns About Future Of The Domes

Together, they could cover 40% of the cost to restore The Domes to gleaming, rehabbed splendor. But before that funding formula can be pieced together, the Milwaukee County Board and Executive have to sign off on the plan.

The board will listen to the plan and the public Wednesday at a public hearing that begins at 6 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Domes Annex, 524 South Layton Blvd. The board meets again Thursday morning.

At the time this story was filed, a vote on the plan did not appear to be on its agenda.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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