It’s time to talk about the future of the beleaguered Mitchell Park Domes. Again!
Yes, a public meeting on the endlessly discussed topic—touched off after a fallen chunk of concrete was discovered in one of the Domes in January 2016—has been set for Thursday, October 19, from 5-8 p.m. The meeting will take place in the lobby of the Domes (524 S. Layton Blvd.) and is free to attend.
“Please join Supervisor Juan Miguel Martinez and Parks Committee Chairman Sheldon Wasserman to continue the discussion on the future of the Domes,” reads the event description. “Parks Executive Director Guy Smith and Deputy Director of Parks James Tarantino will be in attendance to show members of the public the options that were presented at the Parks and Culture Committee meeting and to answer questions, moderated by VIA. The Future of the Domes depends on the public. Come make your voice heard on the Future of the Domes.”
Last month, after seven years and multiple task forces and more than half a million dollars in studies, a long-awaited final study titled “Mitchell Park Domes Future State Planning and Construction Cost Estimating” was presented to the Milwaukee County Board’s Parks and Culture Committee. The report detailed four final options for the Domes, including full restoration and full demolition:
(construction: $4,778,881; full-project: $6,408,230)
2. REPAIR THREE DOMES
(construction: $21,720,595; full-project: $29,085,569)
3. RESTORE THREE DOMES
(construction: $67,149,432; full-project: $91,150,095)
4. RESTORE ONE DOME & BUILD NEW CONSERVATORY
(construction: $64,701,561; full-project: $69,442,663)
No official action was taken at last month’s meeting, but 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 of a situation that’s been a constant presence in the Milwaukee discourse since Barack Obama was President. “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.”
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.”
Earlier this summer, Milwaukee County Parks launched a “Future of Mitchell Park” campaign that included this dire intro:
The Mitchell Park Domes are iconic, but dated. The time has come to chart a new path forward. The Domes of the Mitchell Park Conservatory have been a Milwaukee landmark for generations, but we have reached an inflection point. The cost to operate and maintain the facility continues to rise and deferred maintenance projects are piling up. We have a building that has outlived its expected lifespan and financial path that is no longer viable. Changes are needed.
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.'”
In happier Domes news, the annual fall show is currently on display through November 5. It looks nice!