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Cost estimates to repair, rebuild Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes are ‘staggering’

County official considers asking voters to decide the landmark's future

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Mitchell Park desert dome
Inside Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park desert dome. Roger Gerbig (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The future of Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes could soon be in the hands of the voters, as Milwaukee County officials are considering asking residents to vote on a funding plan for the beloved landmark through a binding referendum.

In December, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution that gives them the leeway to consider repairing, renovating, demolishing or creating a new project on the grounds of the conservancy.

On Tuesday, the Milwaukee County Committee on Parks and Culture learned that demolishing the domes would cost anywhere from $4.7 million to $6.4 million, while repairing them would cost anywhere from $21.7 million to $29 million. It would cost the county $67.1 million to $91.1 million to rebuild the complex, including mechanical system upgrades and building safety improvements. The total estimated cost to rebuild the three glass and aluminum structures alone, without any other site upgrades, is $27 million.

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“These amounts are staggering,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Juan Miguel Martinez said. “They’re amounts that are simply kind of unfeasible, even if we were to raise some sort of money for the domes.”

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

Milwaukee County has been dealing with financial issues for years and is expecting to see a $13 million budget deficit in 2026, even as a 0.4 percent county sales tax increase was approved this year.

Meanwhile, the domes, which were constructed between 1959 and 1967, have been in disrepair for years. They’ve been closed to visitors on and off over the past decade to address repairs and maintenance issues. In 2016, the facility shut down temporarily after a chunk of concrete fell from the ceiling of one of the structures.

Jim Tarantino, Milwaukee County’s deputy parks director, shared a survey with the committee Tuesday which found 80 percent of respondents said preserving the domes was their primary concern.

“The domes are incredibly important to our community,” Tarantino said during the meeting.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, chair of the Committee on Parks and Culture, said he wants the residents of the county to decide for themselves and have all the funding options available.

“This is a public question that all citizens of Milwaukee County have to play a role in, and I think for supervisors to have this responsibility, I think we should go to this direct democratic approach,” Wasserman said.

Steve Cady, policy and research director for the county office of the comptroller, said a binding referendum would allow residents to vote on approving a raise to the tax levy to fund any improvements to the domes.

Even so, Milwaukee County Supervisor Steven Shea, who called the costs for all the options “frightening,” doesn’t believe voters would vote for improvements.

“I can’t see that passing,” Shea said about the binding referendum.

Tarantino said the county could build a new conservancy with a new courtyard and cafe on the site. That option comes with a price tag of $64.7 million to $69.4 million. He also said a fundraising campaign could help pay for any projects that would repair or replace the structures.

“We cannot push the decision to future generations,” Tarantino said Tuesday.

Mitchell Park Conservatory, Milwaukee, Domes
Gretchen Brown/WPR

Repairing the domes would also be a short-term fix, according to Tarantino, as more long-term maintenance would be needed down the road.

It would also cost the county $30.1 million to maintain the domes over a 20-year period if the domes are simply repaired.

The collection housed in the domes includes plants from across the globe and draws visitors from across the region. They 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.

About 200,000 visitors come to the complex on Milwaukee’s south side each year. It’s also been used as a site for music events, farmers markets and as a filming location, with the television series “Joe Pera Talks With You” filming an episode at the site.

No vote was taken by the committee Tuesday, but a public hearing will soon be held at the domes.

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