After seven years, multiple task forces, and more than half a million dollars in studies, Milwaukee County has finally been given four concrete options for the future of the beleaguered Mitchell Park Domes. This is it! We’re finally going to do something! Nearly a decade after a fallen chunk of concrete was discovered in one of the Domes, setting off a seemingly never-ending discussion of what to do with the aging and costly Milwaukee landmarks! Yay!

On Tuesday morning, a long-awaited report titled “Mitchell Park Domes Future State Planning and Construction Cost Estimating” was presented to the Milwaukee County Board’s Parks and Culture Committee. Though no official action was taken at Tuesday’s committee meeting (another public listening session is planned), reactions from committee members were grim.

“I think what you’re hearing from my committee members is frustration. I think it’s shock,” said committee chair Sheldon Wasserman at Tuesday’s meeting. “I think these numbers in the tens of millions of dollars are just…we don’t have the money. We absolutely do not have the money.”

The report details four options for the Domes, and includes both construction and full-project cost estimates for all four options. Those options and dollar figures—the latter of which range from $6.4 million to a whopping $91.1 million—are:

(construction: $4,778,881; full-project: $6,408,230)

(construction: $21,720,595; full-project: $29,085,569)

(construction: $67,149,432; full-project: $91,150,095)

(construction: $64,701,561; full-project: $69,442,663)

Twenty-year lifecycle cost estimates are also included in the study. Option 2 would cost $30,151,869 over 20 years. Option 3, $11,487,519. Option 4, a total of $10,886,674.

Looking for some pros and cons of each option? Look no further:

“I strongly believe that the future of the Domes must be decided in the near future. We cannot and should not continue to kick the can down the road on this important issue,” said Wasserman ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. “After this report is received, a decision must be made that prioritizes the long-term future of the entire park. I look forward to reviewing the information with my fellow committee members and the public. Supervisors have heard loud and clear that the public wants a decision made. Following additional public engagement opportunities this fall, we intend to do just that.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Wasserman suggested that the future of Domes be determined by Milwaukee County taxpayers, via a binding referendum.

“Let the Milwaukee County residents decide,” he said. “Give them the options. Give them a cost just like we do for public schools.”

The Domes are owned and operated by Milwaukee County and Milwaukee County Parks. Neither entity is exactly rolling in cash these days; the Parks, in particular, have continually made it kinda-sorta clear that the Domes are a drain on its limited resources.

“When the Domes were opened in Mitchell Park in 1965 the facility was staffed by 39 full-time positions. Presently the Conservatory is staffed by 13 full-time individuals with support from seasonal park workers,” said Parks Executive Director Guy Smith in a recent memo to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. “The Skilled Trades staff at Milwaukee County Parks are responsible for maintaining all 450+ buildings and facilities within the parks system and while these individuals are not dedicated to maintaining the Domes, they do spend more time performing repairs and routine maintenance at the Domes than at any other Milwaukee County Park facility.”

As for the costs associated with keeping the Domes open, Smith continued:

“As mentioned in the response above, Milwaukee County Parks Skilled Trades Staff spend an exorbitant amount of time maintaining the Domes on a daily basis. This is estimated to cost about $250,000 per year in labor and $125,000 per year in contracted services. Despite ongoing and continued maintenance there are multiple significant capital investments that are needed for the building and its mechanical systems which cannot be addressed through the Parks’ annual operating budget. Replacing the building mechanical systems (HVAC, electrical, power, plumbing), building envelope (doors, roof, windows), and needed operational investments (security, lighting, Wi-Fi connectivity, LED lighting) would all require new capital projects. These needs also include the well-known capital replacement needs of the glass, aluminum, and concrete Domes structures. If Milwaukee County Parks were to create a capital improvement plan (CIP) to address all of the expected needs it would overtake the annual capital improvement request that is submitted through the budget. Providing adequate funding for this new capital plan within Milwaukee County’s fiscal constraints would result in most or all new capital projects being focused on the Domes at the expense of other Park facilities for the next several years.”

So what about raising money from wealthy donors, as well as the public? A fundraising study conducted by the Parks earlier this year found that “Milwaukee County could, in collaboration with the Friends of the Domes, conduct a $20 million fundraising campaign,” but that “to be successful, we would need to focus our efforts on a visionary project that moves beyond ‘saving The Domes.'”

At Tuesday’s meeting, County Supervisor Steven Shea expressed his skepticism of a fundraising campaign.

“Even if we get a successful $20 million fundraising campaign, that still leaves the County with $30 million to pay,” he said. “And the County just doesn’t have $30 million.”

Want more Milwaukee Record? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter and/or support us on Patreon.


Parks and Culture Committee to hear report on the future of the Mitchell Park Domes

Friends of the Domes announces fall events at the Mitchell Park Domes

Stuff We Missed: Two months until we REALLY start talking about what to do with the Domes

Neighbors weigh in on future of Domes, Mitchell Park

About The Author

Avatar photo
Co-Founder and Editor

Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.