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Milwaukee County Executive says future of Mitchell Park Domes is ‘still up in the air’

County Executive vetoed plan for historic designation of the site

Mitchell Park Conservatory, Milwaukee, Domes
Mitchell Park Conservatory. Gretchen Brown/WPR

With a policy saying “all options” are on the table for Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes set for a vote Thursday, Milwaukee’s County Executive said he’s still unsure what the future holds for the site of the historic landmark.

During a Milwaukee Press Club event Tuesday, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley was asked about the future of the domes.

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Thursday on a plan that would put “all options on the table” for the site, including demolition. That strategic plan including options both for renovation and razing the landmark was passed by the Milwaukee County Committee on Parks and Culture on Dec. 6.

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“I would say that that’s still up in the air,” Crowley said. “I think that the parks department, many of the advocates, as well as the county board are continuously having conversations related to how we move forward.”

A man stands in front of green leaves as he speaks during an outdoor press conference.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley speaks during a press conference Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Waukesha, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

If that policy is approved, it would replace a 2016 policy on the domes which calls for the county to “pursue the repair and preservation” of the facility.

Even so, some county board supervisors have stated they’re against demolition of the domes.

“I do think we have to put everything on the table when it comes to our domes,” Crowley said.

The county executive vetoed an attempt by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to list the domes on the National Register of Historic Places in November. Crowley said he vetoed that motion because he wanted to see realistic cost and revenue projections for the restoration of the property, according to a statement.

“If applying for the Register is deemed an integral part of that long-term plan, then we can take this step to make that application as part of that larger plan,” Crowley wrote in a statement. “But, if in the future we deem that pursing this designation would be disadvantageous to that plan, we cannot walk back that step.”

Crowley is also calling for any future plan to be “fiscally sound” because of the “financial constraints of our County,” he wrote in the statement.

“The plan should not include any largely speculative development assumptions related to tax credit structures or private donations or other investment,” Crowley wrote.

In 2019, the County Domes Task Force said it could cost $66 million to renovate the building. Crowley said he’s worried a future repair estimate could be higher now because of inflation.

On Oct. 31, the Milwaukee County Office of Corporation Counsel provided an opinion regarding the move to get the domes historic designation status.

“The OCC strongly advises against any step that invites the state or federal government into the decision-making process regarding County cultural assets at this time, especially given the lack of any agreed upon plan (or agreed upon characteristics of a workable plan) for the Domes,” the opinion said.

Milwaukee County Board Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, who sponsored the resolution for the new policy, said during a meeting that the domes are “falling apart.”

The resolution calls on the Milwaukee County Parks Department and the Office of Strategy, Budget and Performance to explore four main options and present them to the board next summer. Those options include:

  • Demolition, including a cost estimate for recommended site improvements for Mitchell Park
  • Repairs to address deferred maintenance
  • Full building renovation
  • A proposal for a new botanical park and conservatory

The domes were built between 1959 and 1967. The collection housed there includes plants from across the globe and draws visitors from across the region. The domes were included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2016 and designated as a National Treasure in 2017.