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What's the Real Value of the Mitchell Park Domes?

‘Priceless’ plant collection housed in iconic Milwaukee structure

Dec. 6, 2016
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What is the real value of the Mitchell Park Domes? What are the Domes worth to Milwaukee?

Those are two of the questions Milwaukee County residents will be grappling with as we determine whether or how the county should preserve the Domes.

But can we assign a price tag to a unique local landmark that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to view its $3.2 million horticultural collection, even when the structure itself is not in top shape? How many young Milwaukee children became interested in plants because of their school visits to the Domes? What is the value of that? And can Milwaukee afford to lose the Domes, even when keeping them will cost substantial sums of money?

“Our collection is priceless,” said Paula Zamiatowski, the Domes’ interpretive educator, at a meeting last week of the task force formed to decide the Domes’ fate. “The collection is what we’re really worried about.”

Updated Cost Estimates

In February, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele temporarily shut down all three Domes because of falling debris, temporary netting was installed to protect visitors and plants, and their long-term future was in doubt.

Just a day after the final Dome re-opened to the public just last week, Abele released a revised engineering report estimating that totally replacing the three Mitchell Park Domes would cost roughly $64 million. Less extensive repairs to the existing Domes could cost anywhere from $14 million (simply to replace broken glass panes) to $54 million, with varying levels of ongoing maintenance needs.

Building an entirely new horticultural conservatory could cost $50-$70 million, which isn’t totally out of the question, since Abele has floated the idea of building “a new dome” at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Last week’s revised figures, generated by engineering consultants Graef, are lower than Abele’s and Graef’s assertion earlier this year that saving the Domes would cost roughly $75 million, a figure drawn from 2008 estimates for repairing the Show Dome.

The lowered estimate is partially due to the advances made in accessing difficult-to-reach portions of the Domes. In 2013, a new hydraulic lift was developed that provides better access to the interior of the Domes, while a pair of crane-supported customized baskets were built to bring workers and materials to the exterior of the Domes, according to the new report.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which placed the Domes on its 2016 list of 11 most endangered historic places, is funding a peer review of Graef’s revised engineering report.

Running the Numbers

Leading the conversation about the Domes’ future is the Milwaukee County task force on the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes, chaired by Milwaukee attorney William Lynch. The group, which has met twice, is looking at repairing and upgrading the Domes, but other options as well.

The task force met last Wednesday, two days before Abele released Graef’s latest report (dated Nov. 10) and began reviewing the Domes’ operations and maintenance costs, as well as the county’s overall fiscal picture.

According to data provided by Domes Director Sandy Folaron, attendance fluctuates based on a few predictable factors. Attendance increases when all of the Domes are open to the public, when special events draw new visitors and when the Domes can promote its events. Trips to the Domes decrease when at least one of the Domes is closed or when those planning a special event—such as a wedding—aren’t certain if the Domes will be open in the future.

The Domes were fully open in 2015, when they attracted 229,549 visitors, by Folaron’s account. That’s up from previous years, when the Domes were partially shuttered for repairs. In contrast, Folaron said attendance peaked in 1965, when 675,000 individuals attended the new Domes. That said, admission was free back then, compared to the current adult fee of $7, with discounted fees for the seniors, students and the disabled.

Folaron’s analysis also shows that 35% of the Domes’ visitors are Milwaukee County residents, while 39% are Wisconsin residents who live outside of the county. That prompted task force member Michele Bria, executive director of Journey House, to wonder if there could be regional support for the Domes, since it’s a regional asset that draws from outside of the county.

Gurda: ‘This is Not a Business’

Given the realities of the county’s financial picture, much of last Wednesday’s meeting was devoted to the economic health and well-being of the county and the Domes.

According to Folaron, Domes’ attendance fees produced $867,532 in revenue in 2015; combined with other income the Domes generated more than $1 million in revenue that year.

Milwaukee County taxpayers, of course, also support the Domes, from a low of $486,310 in 2015 up to roughly $800,000. The Friends of the Domes have also donated $900,000 to the Domes over the years.

But the county also supports other cultural entities, such as the Milwaukee Public Museum ($3.5 million in operating support in 2017), the Milwaukee Art Museum ($1.3 million), the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts ($900,000), the War Memorial ($486,000), and others, according to a presentation by County Budget Director Steve Kreklow.

Kreklow failed to mention two additional county investments. About $5.4 million in tax support typically goes to the Milwaukee County Zoo each year, and, of course, the county is paying $4 million a year over 20 years to subsidize the privately owned Bucks arena, thanks to a deal cut by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, the Bucks owners and state legislators.

Kreklow warned that the county has great infrastructure needs, including $246 million in deferred maintenance in the parks and potentially constructing a new courthouse, estimated to cost $185 million.

Although task force members are fully aware of the fiscal realities of the county and the Domes themselves, members pushed back on Kreklow’s use of terms like “profit and loss” to describe the financial picture of this cultural asset.

“It’s not a business,” said historian John Gurda. “These are investments we make for all of us.”

Kreklow said Gurda made a “fair point.”

Dawn McCarthy, president of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, called for a more robust study of the Domes’ economic impact on the county, which hasn’t yet been captured by any recent studies.

“What’s missing is the value it brings to the community,” McCarthy told the Shepherd. “What is the value of the visitors going into the community and going for lunch and spending more money? Parks also have an impact on property values, they stabilize or improve property values. I’m not an expert on what an economic impact report would include, but I feel we’re really missing that information.”

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