Mitchell Park Domes run annual deficit of more than $900,000

Revenue fell as attendance rose

The Mitchell Park Domes

Since 2006, Milwaukee County has spent more than twice as much money to operate and maintain the Mitchell Park Domes than they have generated.

The Mitchell Park Domes
The Mitchell Park Domes

The Domes cost the county $14.8 million in operational expenses from 2006 through 2014, but generated only $6.6 million from ticket sales, concessions and renting event space, according to a Aug. 13, 2015 report released by the county.

On average, the Domes cost the county more than $1.6 million per year to keep open, but make only $736,000 — a deficit of more than $900,000 per year.

Though efforts to improve annual attendance over the last five years have worked and entrance fees were increased from $6.50 to $7 in 2014, revenue has hovered. Despite a 32 percent spike in attendance between 2011 and 2014, Mitchell Park Conservatory revenue fell by nearly $66,000 from $810,482 in 2013 to $744,550 in 2014.

Parks Director John Dargle said the domes underwent five months of sporadic maintenance and closures in 2014 that made enforcing the increased entrance fee difficult. Visitors were charged a discounted rate if one or two of the domes were closed, Dargle said, and revenue fell.

“Even though the county has been creative about increasing revenues at the Domes and attracting more visitors with events like Music Under Glass, we’ve experienced some revenue loss,” said Melissa Bauldauff, spokesperson for County Executive Chris Abele.

Though a small portion of expenses are covered through contributions by the Friends of the Domes, a nonprofit group, the vast majority of the conservatory’s operational expenses are handled by the county.

From 2012 to 2014, the Friends of the Domes spent $214,872 on “Domes facilities enhancements,” according to financial information filed with the federal government.

“The Domes and what they represent are an important part of Milwaukee’s history — people have fond memories of the Domes and we know that they are one of Milwaukee’s many cherished cultural assets,” Baldauff said. “Those are just some of the reasons that in 2015 the County Executive and the Parks Department made funding repairs at the Domes a high-priority.”

The Parks department received $500,000 from the county for “additional inspection and repair of the Arid and Show Domes,” according to the minutes of a January 30, 2014 Finance, Personnel and Audit committee.

All three domes at the Mitchell Park Conservatory have been closed since Feb. 5, a week after a piece of concrete casting fell and prompted county officials to close the park’s desert dome. County officials plan to wrap the domes’ structures in a material that will prevent more concrete from falling and reopen the conservatory to the public sometime in May.

During a press conference on Feb. 8, Abele asked for public feedback on the long-term future of the domes, which officials estimate could cost between $65 million and $75 million to replace, after years of deferred maintenance have brought their long-term structural integrity into question.

“That’s a lot of money for the county,” Abele said. “It’s important, though, that we give ourselves the opportunity 50 years after the creation of the Domes to ask ourselves as a community: is this what we want to do going forward; replicate the Domes again?”

A public hearing to discuss the future of the Mitchell Park Conservatory will be held on Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. in the greenhouse complex on the east side of the Domes.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

No posts to display