Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Supervisors Demand A Domes Plan

Parks Committee recommends pursuing historic designation. But then what?

By - Sep 13th, 2022 03:52 pm
The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

A Milwaukee County Board committee gave the first approval for a plan to pursue listing the Mitchell Park Domes on the National Register of Historic Places.

Listing on the national register is an honorific designation; it will not result in any legal protections or mandates. But it would open up the possibility of the county accessing historic tax credits for a future domes preservation project.

After a lengthy discussion at the board’s Committee on Parks and Culture Tuesday about historic preservation and the future of the domes, one thing agreed upon by all parties was that it’s high-time the county actually develops a comprehensive plan for the domes.

Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez, authored the resolution which calls on the county to pursue historic designation. He introduced an amendment at committee adding language to the resolution that states Milwaukee County Parks shall “continue to explore additional actions intended to protect and invest in the long-term prosperity of Mitchell Park.”

Martinez said he added this language after meeting with parks leaders and that it is intended to broaden the scope of what the resolution is asking of parks. “I did take a tour of the domes with Executive Director Guy Smith and [Deputy Director] James Tarantino, recently a week ago, and it absolutely broke my heart to see the disrepair that the domes has fallen into,” he said.

Martinez sponsored the resolution along with Supervisors Dyango Zerpa and Ryan Clancy. Martinez and Zerpa told the parks committee that the move to pursue historic designation is intended to get the ball rolling on preservation of the domes, “And we can start bringing those donors out of the woodwork, we can come up with a comprehensive plan that’s going to make parks happy, that’s going to make the county happy, that’s going to make preservation happy,” Martinez said. 

Tarantino told the committee that parks is “100% committed to Mitchell Park and finding a solution to the challenges we have with the horticultural conservatory in Mitchell park.” But he said the department sees risk in pursuing historic designation before the county has an actionable plan in place. He noted that a final report on a plan to repair the glass and aluminum glazing system is forthcoming in December, and it will bring with it a new cost estimate for that piece of the project.

Given rising inflation and supply chain shortages since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county’s Architecture and Engineering Division has begun baking 12-16% annual inflationary cost increases into all county projects. This is leading parks to conclude that the glazing repairs estimated at approximately $19 million in 2019 could hit a figure as high as $30 million, assuming work begins in 2024

But it’s not the only piece that needs repairing in the domes. As Tarantino noted, “really everything from growing plants to operating boilers to distributing water, heating the facility, everything is a challenge and everything would need to be fixed if we’re moving forward on a certain path.”

Tarantino told the committee that if parks committed to the capital improvements needed at the domes “all those costs would immediately take over our capital budget.”

In any case, the county doesn’t have a hard project cost, or even a provisional plan to pursue despite more than six years working on the issue. The disrepair of the domes came to the fore for county policymakers nearly a decade ago when small concrete chips began falling from the structure. Emergency netting was installed, and in 2016 a task force was convened to explore repairing the domes and preserving them for the future. The task force efforts culminated in a plan by an outside consultant that recent analysis deemed to be too complicated to pursue, in total, while suggesting that various pieces of it in isolation could be actionable.

Sup. Steve Taylor was the lone vote at committee against the resolution pursuing historic designation, saying he preferred to wait for cost estimates and an actionable plan. “I would like to know what the total amount is, and what the actual plan is.” he said. “And as right now we we don’t have that.”

He also questioned whether the county should still be following the 2016 policy set by the board to repair and preserve the domes, wondering whether they should be preserved as they are today.

Everyone was in agreement that the county needs a plan. “Nobody wants to see that plan more than me,” Martinez said. “I want to see the plan, I want to see what the numbers are that are going to fix the domes, that are going to fix the concrete, fix the glass the proper way.”

Committee Chair Sheldon Wasserman supported pursuing historic designation but also asked his colleagues to have legislation ready for the next committee meeting that will call on County Executive David Crowley’s administration and the parks department to develop a plan for the domes. “But I want it to be anything, all, everything is on the table.”

William Lynch, who served as chair of the domes task force, urged the committee to pursue historic designation and said the county needs to “shift its position” and stop criticizing past plans or reviewing studies and come up with a path forward. 

“Studies of studies are only studies,” he said. “They don’t result in any efforts to find out whether there are partners who would work with the county to develop the park and the domes.”

Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Executive Director Jeremy Ebersole told committee members that historic designation poses “really little risk to the county” noting that it does not require the county to pursue tax credits, but merely opens up the possibility to them. He also noted that the county already paid a contractor in 2019 to work on the historic designation nomination and that it’s nearly complete.

“I think we can all agree that doing nothing is not an option,” Ebersole said. “Slow walking the issue is ultimately a death sentence to the domes.”

One thought on “MKE County: Supervisors Demand A Domes Plan”

  1. says:

    It is time to change top management of the Parks Department. What will the board do when Smith and Tarantino do not return with a plan but find excuses and and other delays to not partner with the community it works for. I can wait to hear again the we are short staffed, understaffed, have procedures to go thru, have no funding for that, etc.?
    Three projects, at least one approved by the board by the 27th Street Business Improvement District that offered to fund and maintain those improvements in the parks have been killed by their unwillingness to have vision and make things happen! We have no money or staff but refuse to take any help from anyone but tax payers. ( and we know you can’t raise taxes because of tax freezes and lack of a fair share of shared revenue) Partners to help on the domes? They will find a way to stop that with extra requirements after agreements are approved by the board as they did with the proposed history park for Wilson Park. The statement I heard was “ I have never seen people work so hard to not have to work”. That seems to some up top management of the Parks Department.
    I am definitely missing innovators like Sue Black. The County Executive can make the change in leadership or you can eliminate funding those positions yourself if you don’t get a plan.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us