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Study finds crumbling Milwaukee Domes, public museum could share $300M building

A consultant has found it feasible to raze the iconic but deteriorating Mitchell Park Domes and build a new facility it would share with the Milwaukee Public Museum.

But during a meeting Tuesday, county lawmakers were dismayed by the prospect of demolishing the domes that house the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, which have been a fixture of the city’s skyline since the 1960s. The county faces a backlog of repairs to its cultural facilities that could cost hundreds of millions to address, and launched a study of consolidating the domes and the public museum — which needs a new facility of its own — through a 2019 budget amendment.

Supervisor Jason Haas during the meeting said the county remains committed to repairing the domes and is awaiting another study that examines what it would take to restore the facility. Lawmakers were also upbeat about the prospect of repairing the domes with historic tax credits.

“The county’s policy has not changed one iota,” Haas said. “Repair and restore is our current policy.”

The costs of repairing the domes, however, would “greatly outweigh” the benefits of doing so, according to a report on consolidating the two facilities conducted by consultant Gallagher Museum Services. The domes suffer from crumbling concrete and leaking rainwater and a county task force previously estimated it could cost between $40 million and $95 million to repair them. The Milwaukee Public Museum, which is likewise grappling with infrastructure problems, announced it was looking for a new location for the museum in 2017.

Museum officials have said they hope to begin raising the $100 million needed for a new building in 2019. Ellen Censky, president and CEO of the public museum, told the committee Tuesday that museum officials recently found leaks in the roof that threatened an exhibit. Concrete also fell from the roof in a little-used stairwell because structural steel had separated from the building’s foundation by about an inch, she said.

“That sounds bad?” Haas said.

Mike Devine, president of Gallagher Museum Services, said that the group wasn’t tasked with telling the county if it should tear down the domes, only if a joint facility would make sense. A new combined facility of about 300,000 square feet would cost $267 million to build, according to the report.

“We do believe that a joint facility could be developed and done in a way that is more efficient than the current standalone facilities,” Devine said.

The report was commissioned by the Milwaukee County Museum Task Force, which is studying the county’s cultural attractions. Another county group, the Domes Task Force, has commissioned a study of its own that looks at repairing the domes, which is due in September.

Although some committee members bristled at the prospect of tearing down the domes, they were intrigued by the prospect of repairing it with historic tax credits.

Jennifer Sandy, associate field director for the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, delivered a report that indicates the county could pursue historic tax credits for the property. The report, prepared by law firm Nixon Peabody, found that the county would need to lease out the structure to a private party to qualify for the tax credits. Buildings owned wholly by public entities don’t qualify for the credits, the report found.

It was a welcome conclusion to some lawmakers.

“The thought of tearing down the domes just pains me,” said Supervisor Steven Shea.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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