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Task force explores the possibilities for Mitchell Park's Domes

For the first time since the Mitchell Park Conservatory Task Force began meeting in late 2016, members brainstormed in depth about what they envision for Milwaukee’s trio of glass houses known as the Domes. The Jan. 16 work session, facilitated by consultants James Vander Heiden of HGA and Robert Brais of ConsultEcon, spurred a high-energy exchange of ideas “not constrained by current staffing and funding.”

The Domes built between 1959 and 1967, fell into disrepair in recent years following decades of deferred maintenance. They were closed for several months in 2016 after leaking caused some concrete coating on steel beams to deteriorate. Mesh netting was installed in each dome to prevent flaking concrete from falling, as a stop-gap repair.

The county board created the task force to study potential “future paths” for the Domes, including long-term repair options and other possible courses of action.

Brais encouraged committee members to consider ways to transform the Domes, which have been declared a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As the meeting concluded, member John Gurda noted that the group was “still in the blue-sky phase, but starting to name a few clouds.”

Some preferred “measures of success” included: increased annual attendance (which Brais estimated could double to 400,000, based on economic indicators); preservation of valuable plant collections and the beehive-shaped buildings; increasing fiscal impacts and environmental sustainability; and retaining and expanding the Domes’ community and cultural impacts. Ian Battista, executive director of the Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative, said he wants to “honor the place within the context of the neighborhood by maintaining and improving on the psychological and social pride” that the Domes inspire. He cited the “Rule of 10” as a key to urban dynamism: “having 10 cool things to do in a place with 10 more within its vicinity to engrave within people’s memories.”

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Committee members expressed support for numerous potential “targeted enhancements” to the conservatory, assuming it is maintained and functional. Some were modest and immediately doable, such as resuming “Music Under Glass,” the winter music series suspended in 2017. Others suggested exploring expanded and innovative programming, including education in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) for people of all ages; using the Domes Annex for more events; activating the Domes and Mitchell Park more in warm weather; adding more interactive features and programming for children; and year-round evening hours at least one day weekly.

Committee members would also like to see better links between the Domes and Mitchell Park, the adjacent Three Bridges Park, the Hank Aaron Trail and other places in the Menomonee Valley; and better signage and way-finding. Ranell Washington suggested “tying it all together with enhanced advertising and marketing to increase attendance.” He also suggested promoting the Domes more as a must-visit place for convention visitors, corporate events, celebrations and holiday outings.

There was also support for more substantial investments, like a visitor center, restaurant, canopy walk, increased classroom space and reinstating gardens on the site, including where the renowned Sunken Garden was located. An independent foundation was seen as a possible way to raise money.

Some consensus emerged for “green” opportunities. Potential partnerships were also a hot topic, such as using the Domes’ working greenhouses to teach horticulture; teaming up with Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District on “green infrastructure”; and possible collaborations with the Milwaukee Water Council, University of Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences and other entities.

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The consulting team will process ideas and present information about how various options could be achieved. After the task force reaches consensus on possible scenarios, there will be a public-engagement phase.

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