'Friends of the Domes' bring new hope for the future of conservatory

Posted at 9:54 AM, Nov 20, 2023

MILWAUKEE — Despite the crumbling concrete and uncertain future, Friends of the Domes leaders said there’s reason to be optimistic as a new proposal to save the conservatory starts to take shape.

A lot still needs to be decided in terms of cost and scale of the project but Milwaukee County Parks leaders said with the non-profit at the helm, it’s a move in the right direction.

"What gives me faith in their ability to take this on is that we have been growing our partnership with them in such a significant way over the last couple of years,” Parks Deputy Director Jim Tartino said. “We have the momentum.”

Friends of the Domes Executive Director Christa Beall Diefenbach said in the past year, with added staff, they’ve been able to significantly increase admission, membership, and donations.

She said now they’re ready to do more by taking the lead on restoring the domes and making sure they’re more profitable long term.

“We do feel very hopeful that there is a viable path forward,” Diefenbach said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to really create something that’s solid, that everybody can get behind.”

Friends of the Domes’ vision for the future essentially combines 2 of 4 proposals that county leaders have been weighing. The plan would restore all three domes and include a new structure to house events, educational programming, and a café but on a smaller scale than originally proposed.

“I feel like if we were able to add more, make it more of an attraction, bring more people back I feel like then it would be worth it,” Domes visitor and supporter Gordon Jablonski said.

Diefenbach said the goal of the upgrades and added space is to create better opportunities to generate more revenue from the Milwaukee landmark.

She said the non-profit is not yet ready to share an estimate for project cost but previous proposals have been anywhere from 20 to 90 million dollars.

"We still have some work to do to define how much new building construction, what of the old can be saved, and what might be changing,” Tartino said. “What we do have is the optimism and the first step towards a fundraising campaign which has never happened before."

The project’s goal is to combine private donations, and municipal funding options like tax credits and county dollars to secure the Domes' future.

Diefenbach said they plan to have a complete proposal and budget within the next six months. Ultimately it’ll be up to the County Board to decide whether or not to move forward.