Frequently asked questions about the future of Mitchell Park
Thank you for your interest in the future of the Mitchell Park Conservatory – whether as a community asset, an event space, or both. Discussions regarding the future of Mitchell Park and the Domes have been going on for years, and some new developments in those ongoing discussions have put the facility in the news again recently.
Below are some frequently asked questions regarding the process. Please contact us if you have a question you do not see answered.
Nobody wants the domes to be simply demolished. Milwaukee County Parks was asked by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to explore all possibilities when it comes to the future of the Domes – to do our due diligence, explore all options, and gather information that has been missing from past studies, including the costs associated with various paths forward. One of those paths could include removing some or all of the existing structures, but doing so is a costly proposition. Other possible outcomes, including repairing or repurposing the Domes, are also costly propositions. It’s important that we are thorough in our analysis, both in terms of costs as well as in gathering input from the community, so that we can chart a responsible path forward. We truly see this as a positive step, as we are taking action at a moment in time where there are multiple paths forward. If we continue to kick the can down the road in the years to come, it’s possible that demolition would eventually become the only viable option.
In February 2023 alone, the Domes had 22,100 visitors (not including event or field trip participants)! In addition, Friends of the Domes membership is at an all-time high, with more than 4,000 members. It is clear that our community still values the Domes and its many benefits. In 2022, 45% of our visitors were not residents of Milwaukee County and 63% of our revenue came from outside of the County.
We’re currently gathering information and exploring all options for the future. Any path will likely require both public and private investment and public involvement will also be an incredibly important part of this process. What is clear at this point is that we can’t delay this any longer. We have engaged a team of independent consultants to explore a variety of paths forward.
The needed repairs to keep the Domes safe and functional in their current form is projected to exceed $60 million. Even if we made that investment, however, ongoing maintenance costs need to be considered as well. Milwaukee County Parks is already struggling to maintain all of our assets, even beyond the Domes. The current backlog of Milwaukee County Parks deferred maintenance projects is estimated at approximately $500 million. To adequately maintain the full Domes structure, if repaired, along with all of our other Parks assets, Milwaukee County would need to substantially increase our annual operating budget.
The Domes are a testament to the futuristic and forward-thinking mindset of the 60s. The design originally stemmed from an international design competition to replace a Victorian-architectural style greenhouse. The 1950s and 60s were an era of futurism and also growth where Milwaukee County was able to show the world its engineering and design skills.
Nevertheless, while the Domes are now an iconic structure in Milwaukee because they were designed to have an iconic look, that look has always been about form, not function. While the Domes may look like a greenhouse, they don’t actually function as one. That iconic design has proven to be terribly inefficient over time, leading to many adverse impacts resulting from the poor design structure.
No. In fact, they are actually terribly inefficient, both from a maintenance standpoint as well as an energy use standpoint. They were built at a time when far more consideration was given to visual design than functional design. They are not, and were never intended to be, greenhouses. We actually have a modern greenhouse structure on site that is a model of sustainable building practices and is incredibly efficient for growing and sustaining plantlife, but the domes themselves are not.
In short, no. The Domes are facing a significant financial challenge as the costs of utilities, routine maintenance, necessary repairs to maintain the safety and functionality of the building, and other expenses outweigh the revenue generated, making it unsustainable for the facility to support itself.
The County has made numerous investments in the Domes in recent years in order to generate additional revenue, from expanding our marketing efforts to increasing the number of private events we hold in the space through a partnership with Zilli Hospitality Group. We have also invested in a new greenhouse to generate cost savings in caring for the Domes’ plant life, expanded our partnership with Friends of the Domes (FOD) to minimize landscaping expenses, and built new partnerships with other invested civic organizations. While each of these efforts has helped, the significant costs associated with maintaining the aging facility continue to outpace our revenue streams.
On average folks spend about 30 minutes at the Domes. It is possible to spend much longer depending on what you would like to do.
As the operator of the facility, the Milwaukee County Parks Department has an obligation to ensure that the Mitchell Park Domes remain a safe and welcoming space for visitors and eventgoers, while also working to put the facility on solid financial footing so it can remain an asset to our community long into the future. We’ve engaged a team of experts to study potential paths forward, and it’s certainly possible that the facility as it exists today could someday change as part of this process. This is not going to happen overnight, though, it is a long-term process, and one we’re engaging in carefully and thoughtfully by engaging key stakeholders throughout the community.
Certainly, Zilli Hospitality Group (ZHG) is one those key stakeholders, and the programming they facilitate within the Domes and in Greenhouse 7 is a vital piece of our operations. ZHG has been a partner of ours for years, and we have an agreement with them to continue operating the Domes and Greenhouse 7 as truly one-of-a-kind event spaces far into the future. While these discussions surrounding the future of the facility will continue in the background, they won’t alter our commitment to maintaining the safety and beauty of the space for ZHG and their clients.
Again, we appreciate your interest in the space and in the long-term future of the Mitchell Park Conservatory. As we’ve mentioned, community input will be a key component of this long-term process. We invite you to learn more about the efforts underway to ensure the long-term viability of this iconic Milwaukee amenity and to share your feedback on what elements of the Domes you value most.