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Consultant recommends $66M for Mitchell Park Domes but warns plan is ‘challenging’

The Mitchell Park Domes stand off South Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee in June 2018. A Milwaukee County task force was planning to vote on Tuesday on a $66 million plan to renovate the domes, which contain a horticultural conservatory. The domes were closed for much of 2016 because of interior deterioration. County officials have since been looking for ways to make needed repairs and keep them open as an attraction. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

The Mitchell Park Domes stand off South Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee in June 2018. A Milwaukee County task force was planning to vote on Tuesday on a $66 million plan to renovate the domes, which contain a horticultural conservatory. The domes were closed for much of 2016 because of interior deterioration. County officials have since been looking for ways to make needed repairs and keep them open as an attraction. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County officials will consider on Tuesday using a public-private partnership to overhaul the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, a plan that would preserve the park’s well-known domes and add new features such as a food-truck park and a hub for research.

The plan — written by the consulting company ArtsMarket, of Bozeman, Montana — calls for spending $66 million over the next 10 years to repair the domes, which were closed for a good part of 2016 because of crumbling concrete and leaks. The deteriorating domes are just one item on a long list of county properties that need repairs in coming years. A recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report recommended that Milwaukee County either sell or enter into public-private partnerships for some its assets to pay for what could turn out to be $400 million worth of repairs over the next four years.

ArtsMarket, in its report, notes that the public-private arrangement proposed for the Mitchell Park Domes — which would rely on $13.5 million worth of private cash and $39 million of tax credits — is the only practicable way to repair the domes should Milwaukee County prove unable or unwilling to take on the project itself. The consultants’ recommendations are scheduled to go before a special county task force on Tuesday night.

“If Milwaukee County could bond the full amount required, this approach would not be necessary: absent that there is no other financial capital model for feasibility,” according to the report.

The report calls for Mitchell Park to be overhauled in a way meant both to connect people to plants through research and the culinary arts and to buoy the surrounding neighborhood, named Clark Square. The plan would add an amphitheater, a children’s garden, a food-truck park, a farm-to-table restaurant and a wedding venue. It also calls for working with colleges and hospitals to bring a horticultural and medical-research center to the park.

The project could create 300 jobs in horticulture, culinary arts and other fields, according to the consultant. Workforce training would help ensure those positions could be filled.

But the consultants have warned that following this plan will be “challenging.” Carrying it out will mean the county must aggressively pursue historic tax credits, new-market tax credits and PACE financing and secure funding through the Opportunity Zone in which the park lies. Because Milwaukee County can only borrow so much to overhaul the domes, it’s under a “requirement” to move quickly and draw on various funding sources.

In all, repairing the domes will require $26 million from programs such as new-market tax credits, and $13.5 million from private donors. Milwaukee County would kick in $13.5 million — a sum that the consultants say is $1 million less than would be needed to tear down the properties. Some donors, however, may be wary of contributing to the project.

“The planning study of traditional prospective donors suggests that some will join in, but there is skepticism of the county’s will and capacity to complete this project and adopt this plan,” according to the report.

The report envisions 10 years of work. The project would get underway in 2020 or 2021, starting with the establishment of the sort of legal framework needed for a public-private project. Operating the domes would then cost about $5 million a year. In the end, the park would be one of the county’s “leading” civic institutions, on-par with the Milwaukee County Zoo.

The domes are far from the only attraction now demanding county officials’ attention. Milwaukee County could be faced with as much as $226 million worth of capital projects in its parks and cultural assets by 2023, a situation brought on by its years-long practice of reining in its borrowing, according to a recent report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. Beyond the domes, the county is faced with having to find a replacement for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s building, which is suffering structural deterioration of its own.

The recent report on the domes follows on months of hand-wringing over what to do with the well-known structures, which date to the ’60s. In March, a separate consultant delivered a report finding the domes and the Milwaukee Public Museum could share a $300 million building in Mitchell Park. Separately, a range of options came last year from another consultant, discussing everything tearing down the domes to spending $90 million on improvements.

The county’s Mitchell Park Domes Task Force will consider the latest business plan during a meeting Tuesday evening, and could recommend its findings to the full county board.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

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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