Since the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory temporarily closed for preventive repairs in 2016 there has been much discussion about physical challenges facing the three unique-in-the-world, cone-shaped domes. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also named the Domes to its “National Treasures” program and funded an engineering study.
Now, a new report analyzes what happens inside those glasshouses perched above the Menomonee Valley—and what could make the Domes an even-more-captivating destination. The report, by Greater Boston-based ConsultEcon, Inc., specifies ways the conservatory could attract more visitors, serve broader community audiences and needs, and increase its economic impact by notching up operations, marketing and programming. ConsultEcon vice president Robert E. Brais presented many potential opportunities at the December meeting of the Mitchell Park Conservatory Task Force, which includes citizens and county officials.
ConsultEcon is part of a team hired by Milwaukee County and led by Milwaukee architectural firm HGA. The “Future Path Feasibility Study” process will help chart a future vision for the 50-year-old conservatory. ConsultEcon provides “economic, feasibility, management and planning services to nonprofit organizations, public agencies and private businesses,” and has assisted many botanical gardens, museums and other destinations, including more than 60 in the Midwest.
The report followed a study of the Domes’ facilities and operations, the Greater Milwaukee destination market, and conservatories and botanical gardens, especially in similar-sized metro areas. Among its findings are that the Domes attract significant attendance with few employees — by far the highest ratio among local attractions. That translates to 16,154 attendees per each of its 13 full-time-equivalent employees. (For comparison, the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum achieves the next-highest ratio: 6,154 attendees per FTE. The Milwaukee County Zoo attracts 3,714 attendees per FTE, and also receives much-higher budgetary support from the county.)
Also, despite meager marketing, the Domes are the 5th-most-popular attraction in Metropolitan Milwaukee (among public and nonprofit institutions). With 210,000 visitors in 2015 — 81 percent from Wisconsin — it trails only the Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee Public Museum, Discovery World and Milwaukee Art Museum.
Nonetheless, the report asserts that Domes attendance could increase — in some cases dramatically — through “targeted investments.” Numerous options “would not be huge undertakings but could make a big difference” in positively improving the visitor experience and increasing attendance, said Brais. That could include higher-quality changing exhibits and interpretative displays; integration of science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) education within programming; exhibits and programs about native-plant ecology, sustainability and landscaping; night-time educational events; children’s gardens and butterfly or “insectarium” exhibits and programs.
Other upgrades could include a visitor orientation/theater space and food-service facilities. New on-site greenhouses could also be integrated into public programming or used to grow more plants for sale.
Brais said that even-greater investments could further establish the Domes as a tourist destination. These “aspirational opportunities” reflect trends in successful horticultural conservatories and botanical gardens. They would likely need to include organizational improvements and require “significant private/philanthropic capital funding for implementation.” In turn, they could yield major community benefits and impacts, including much-greater economic development and tourism, the report noted.
Those options include world-class exhibits relating to horticultural ecosystems; converting the current “show dome” to a third climate-exhibit space; a canopy-walk structure within one or more dome; new space dedicated to changing-exhibit programming; and the return of botanical gardens in Mitchell Park to promote year-round attendance. Enhanced amenities could support longer visits and drive attendance with broader geographic reach. Increased staffing, as well as branding and advertising, could help sustain long-term success. Alternately, the task force could choose to recommend repurposing the Domes for other uses or even razing them and reusing the site.
Other local institutions, including educational entities, could join forces with the conservatory to broaden audience appeal with new exhibits and programming. Brais said such partnerships might range from occasional shared use of facilities, to sponsorships, to a permanent organizational merger. In response to questions from task force members about prospective partners, Brais stressed that it was important to “determine your vision first,” and then enlist partners who you might help to achieve that vision.
Task force members will begin evaluating and prioritizing these opportunities at their next meeting, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 17 at 3 p.m. at a location to be determined. Meeting notices and minutes are posted online.
Brais said creating a vision “will take a while to unfold.” Task force chair William Lynch said he hopes the committee will develop up to three potential scenarios, which will then be presented to governmental leadership, potential partners and citizens. Brais said a compelling vision will be more likely to inspire partnerships and community support.