Milwaukee County task force mulls financing options for The Domes

Total project costs range from $15 million to $75 million


A task force assigned to recommend a long-term plan to the Milwaukee County Board for the horticultural domes at the Mitchell Park Conservatory is mulling three financing scenarios that would pay for either major repairs to the existing structures or a new facility to replace them.

The task force will meet tonight at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the options at the Mitchell Park Conservatory, 524 S. Layton Blvd.

The Mitchell Park Domes
The Mitchell Park Domes

Under the first scenario laid out in meeting materials, the county would issue a $7.5 million general obligation bond and seek an additional $7.5 million in private contributions to pay for a “new, more efficient facility” that could “break even” in terms of annual revenue at a total cost of $15 million. The county would then divert the $600,000 annual subsidy it gives to the current conservatory in order to pay off the $7.5 million bond.

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In the second scenario, the county would dedicate half of its $10 million annual capital budget for the entire parks system over a five-year period ($25 million) to either repairs to the facilities or a new conservatory. The county would then seek an additional $25 million in private contributions to create a $50 million project budget.

For the third scenario to work, the County Board would have to exceed a self-imposed, non-statutory bonding cap it set in the early 2000s. The option calls for a $50 million general obligation bond to be issued that would require a property tax levy increase of around $4 million annually to pay off. The county would then seek an additional $25 million in private contributions to create a $75 million project budget, which would put the county within range of a full restoration of the geodesic domes.

Over the past 10 months, county officials have estimated a full restoration could cost anywhere from $65 million to $80 million. Analysts who put together the outline recommended the county collaborate with other governments in the Milwaukee region to develop a financing plan in this scenario.

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Regardless of which option the County Board ultimately decides to pursue, an analysis of the county’s financial situation prepared in advance of the meeting warned that the county’s growing capital infrastructure needs and other long-term financial obligations will limit its ability to absorb additional debt.

The county’s funding cap for capital improvements is projected to increase gradually over the next five years from $50.5 million in 2017 to $56.9 million in 2021, according to the analysis. However, capital requests far exceed the county’s cap in each of those next five years, and are increasing at a much more rapid pace.

Capital requests from county departments for 2017 totaled $95.4 million and requests for 2021 exceed $147 million.

Though the county could afford to pay for significant, but far less expensive, capital projects in its current financial situation, such as an expansion and renovation of the African elephant exhibit at the Milwaukee County Zoo, it would not be able to absorb a large-scale project without outside help, the analysis states.

The expansion and renovation of the African elephant exhibit, which is needed to meet Association of Zoos & Aquariums accreditation standards, is expected to cost $16 million, of which the county would be on the hook for roughly $8 million.

“A project similar in size to the Zoo’s African Exhibit may be possible with current county financial structures,” the analysis reads. “A large-scale project could not be absorbed within the current county financial structure and would require collaboration with the state and/or neighboring communities. Consideration should be given for a long-term revenue stream for maintenance of a new facility.”

From early February through the end of October, construction crews were busy at the Mitchell Park Conservatory making repairs to the lattice concrete and steel structures of the geodesic horticultural domes. All three domes at the conservatory were closed on Feb. 5, a week after a piece of concrete casting fell from the structure of the Desert Dome.

Crews wrapped thousands of concrete-cast joints that make up the structures to prevent more pieces from falling.

The Show Dome was reopened April 29, the Tropical Dome was reopened on Sept. 26 and the Desert Dome was reopened on Oct. 29.

But the repairs are being viewed by county leaders as a short-term solution.

The closures raised questions about the longevity of the Domes, which County Executive Chris Abele estimated in February may cost between $65 million and $75 million to repair or replace. The steep cost estimate prompted meetings seeking public input on the future of the Domes.

At the time, Abele spokesperson Melissa Baldauff blamed the Domes’ deterioration on what she called an inherited mess of deferred maintenance.

Construction of the Mitchell Park Domes was completed in 1967.

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