Back in February of 2016, an overflow crowd of residents gathered for a public meeting at the Greenhouse Annex at Mitchell Park Domes to voice their concerns over the conservatory.
“The people in this community and others want their decision-makers to take action to preserve The Domes,” said Ian Bautista, then the executive director of the Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative.
At the time, The Domes themselves were closed to the public after a piece of fallen concrete raised safety concerns as well as questions about the long-term sustainability of the three structures.
Back to the future
Fast forward seven years and the future of The Domes might be even more uncertain, as the latest effort to plot the South Side landmark’s future is underway.
Officials will make recommendations based on information from a community survey, a cost-analysis of several redevelopment options, including demolition, and information gathered at public input sessions to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in July.
That deadline will likely be pushed to October, according to Juan Miguel Martinez, county supervisor for the 12th District, which includes Mitchell Park.
A focus on nearby residents
Martinez said he hopes The Domes will become something that serve nearby residents. He said this doesn’t necessarily happen now.
“Most people in the surrounding community don’t go to The Domes,” said Martinez, who lives a few blocks west of Mitchell Park. “I do doors around my neighborhood, and people haven’t been in years or haven’t been there at all.”
That’s not to say it’s not an important landmark, he added. In fact, his preference is for a redevelopment option that keeps the iconic domed structures but repurposes them.
‘It’s unsustainable right now’
“The simple fact is that it’s unsustainable right now,” he said. “It has the feel of a suburban playground, and I’d rather it be used by more people in the community.”
Christa Beall Diefenbach is executive director of Friends of the Domes, a nonprofit that supports programming and other activities at The Domes. Her organization is collecting feedback from residents until May 31, through a community survey.
“We’re trying to reach out as far and wide as possible so that people can voice their interests and opinions about what The Domes mean to them and what they want for the future,” said Diefenbach, who added that the goal is to collect 10,000 to 20,000 responses.
That information, she said, will help county supervisors make a more informed decision about what to do next.
Perhaps the largest component of the report that will go before the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors is a cost-analysis from the Concord Group, a consulting firm with an office in Milwaukee, of several redevelopment options, including demolition.
The final report, which Concord secured with a bid of $145,000, will also include architectural renderings and other visualizations of the different options. Originally scheduled to be completed in July, the county has yet to finalize its contract with Concord. As a result, the deadline for the report will likely be pushed back to fall, Martinez said.
The latest of several attempts
Diefenbach admits that this is not the first go-round in terms of resident polling and planning studies for The Domes.
“This really goes back decades,” she said. “However, we haven’t had all the information in its most current form in one place at one time; this is a very comprehensive approach.”
A different attempt to end a stalemate plateaued in 2019, when the first Milwaukee County Task Force on the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes, released its plan for the structures.
Concerns about previous plan
The task force supported a $66 million plan to renovate The Domes and add amenities at Mitchell Park, an estimate that group’s chairman, Bill Lynch, said was too high. It was to be paid for by a combination of private sector and county and tax preservation dollars.
The plan never moved forward as a new task force created by the county found that the 2019 cost estimates were outdated, estimates on available tax credits were incorrect, not enough non-debt equity was proposed for the project, and revenue projections based on attendance and sales were speculative.
In addition, an attempt to secure $19 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, which was supported by Martinez and other county supervisors, to rehab The Domes was rejected in 2022.
A search for solutions
Speaking personally, Diefenbach said, the time to identify a solution for The Domes is running out.
“There is no longer an opportunity to kick this can down the road,” she said. “This is the moment where we need updated information so that we can make the right decision for our community.”
Diefenbach, who said her organization is also planning to include information on the possibility of a capital campaign and what the philanthropic community could support in the report to the county, said the goal is to find a permanent solution to the issues that cloud The Domes’ future.
“We want a sustainable solution that doesn’t result in us being in the same place 10 years down the road,” she said.
A Latinx cultural center?
As for Martinez, his current preference is to turn The Domes into a Latinx cultural center that hosts events and exhibits that highlight the history of different ethnic groups and neighborhoods.
He also wants any effort to address the future of The Domes to include a plan on how to return Mitchell Park to prominence.
“I want Mitchell Park to be what it used to be, and that was a great park,” he said. “All the attention goes to The Domes, but none of it goes to the park that surrounds it.”
Your input is needed
- Martinez is hosting a community input event from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday, June 5 at the Mitchell Park Pavilion, 524 S. Layton Blvd., to ask residents for their thoughts on future plans for The Domes.
- Friends of the Domes is collecting feedback from residents until May 31 through a community survey.
Ian Bautista says
To all readers, especially including policy- & decision-makers: please READ the 2019 plan. You can quibble with cost estimates, revenue sources, etc. But, the substance and importantly the vision of what is in that Mitchell Park Revitalization Plan are all still valid today. Why do we continue to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep coming to similar conclusions about the same venue? IMHO, the culture of “no,” and scarcity at Milwaukee County is delaying and almost assuring that we arrive at some future date with the ultimate decision of having to demolish a structure within a park that are both beloved by the community. Demolition would do deep harm to the near South Side and to the psyche of the Milwaukee Community as a whole. The saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” has never been more glaringly proven than in this case. The culture of scarcity and analysis paralysis at Milwaukee County is winning the battle versus important history, cherished nostalgia, and visionary & culturally relevant activation (along with revenue-generating opportunities) of this beloved Milwaukee asset. I urge the policy-makers to take bold action and overcome this inertia.
Thomas Spellman says
How much does it COST to save the buildings for how many years? That is what should be front and center. The rest is window dressing. ie IF the cost to save the buildings is greater than building new ones that will be built in the park then that is the next decision Mitchell Park is the home of the greenhouse and the sunken garden now gone Talk of repurposing the Domes makes no sense.