Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Crowley Vetoes Historic Designation For Domes

County Executive says county should consider all options, including demolition of domes.

By - Nov 7th, 2022 05:01 pm
The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

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

County Executive David Crowley has moved to block an attempt at listing the Mitchell Park Domes on the National Register of Historic Places and also signaled that he thinks preservation should not be the only option for the future of the domes.

In September, the Milwaukee County Board approved legislation that asks the parks department to seek a listing for the Mitchell Park Domes on the National Historic Register. The county executive vetoed the resolution, stating that he does not want the county to move forward with historic designation until a long-term, sustainable plan has been developed for the domes and that demolition should be considered.

“The plan should consider and analyze options that may or may not include preservation of the domes in their current form, and if not, suggest other investments to support the specific community in which Mitchell Park sits, as well as the county’s mission and financial future, and alternatives to preserve the plant species and other flora currently housed at the Domes.”

Crowley’s predecessor, Chris Abele took a similar position when he said demolition was a “realistic option” in a 2016 interview with Dan Bice. “If the public says, ‘Hey, we don’t want to spend, of the finite box of funding we have, we don’t want to spend on this $75 million,’ I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong,” Abele said.

The county executive’s veto message does not expressly say he’s for or against historic designation or demolition. It offers provisional opposition to historic preservation until a plan is developed, and suggests consideration of demolition as one of several planning criteria.

In September, members of the board’s Committee on Parks and Culture informally called for an actionable plan for the domes and discussed drafting a resolution requesting the administration develop one. At this meeting, committee chair Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman said of the proposed plan “everything is on the table.”

The domes have been a challenge for policymakers for nearly a decade. When concrete chips began to fall from the structure, the question of how or whether to fix and maintain the domes was raised. A task force was created in 2016, and after three years of work it recommended a final plan to the county. That plan was created by a consultant, Arts Market LLC. and involved a complicated financial stack and a reimagining of all of the Mitchell Park. A recent legal and financial analysis by the accounting firm Baker Tilly and the law firm Husch Blackwell found that the plan, as a whole, was unfeasible. (Wassserman called the plan “an embarrassment.”)

Crowley’s veto made clear the county’s financial situation must be the primary frame for any plan for the domes, and suggested that it might not be in the county’s interest to remain the sole owner of the domes saying “Milwaukee County should not necessarily be the first payor or payor of last resort.” He also said the plan should be specific and based on data that is “verifiable and realistic” and not “speculative or aspirational.”

“The plan should not include any largely speculative development assumptions related to tax credit structures or private donations or other investment,” he said.

Crowley said he vetoed the historic designation legislation in part because of concerns that such a designation would limit the county’s flexibility in planning for and redeveloping the domes. He cites an opinion drafted by the county’s Office of Corporation Counsel that states, “‘[T]he OCC strongly advises against any step that invites the state or federal government into the decision-making process regarding County cultural assets at this time, especially given the lack of any agreed upon plan… for the domes.'”

Back in September, when the resolution was being debated, historic preservation advocates and experts argued that the listing on the national register is only an “honorific” designation and carries no legal weight. Only if the county decides to pursue historic designation tax credits would state or federal rules on redevelopment of historic structures come into play.

Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, told Urban Milwaukee that designation of the domes “would not prevent the county from taking any specific actions.” As the head of Milwaukee’s only non-profit dedicated to historic preservation, Ebersole has been involved in pushing for preservation of the domes. National historic preservation is a “relatively easy and low-risk” action the county can take to move the needle on the domes project, Ebersole had argued.

He was stunned by Crowley’s veto. “I was shocked and disappointed, frankly, especially given the very strong support by the county board of moving forward with the nomination,” Ebersole said.

Crowley’s veto message declared “there is virtually nothing to gain by taking this step now rather than… as part of a long-term, sustainable plan.” Crowley also said that he understands the “frustration of delays” and the wish for “decisive action.”

“But decisiveness in and of itself is not a virtue,” he noted. “Given the financial constraints of our county, we must take measured action that is reasonably likely to lead to the success of Mitchell Park and this important architectural and cultural landmark in Milwaukee County.”

The Domes

One thought on “MKE County: Crowley Vetoes Historic Designation For Domes”

  1. gerrybroderick says:

    Given the broad public support for saving The Domes, this veto did come as a surprise… and since there is no daylight to be found between Abele’s and Crowley’s positions on this matter, It makes one wonder if the fact that Abele ( the chief funder and advocate for his successor) might continue to have some say in policy decisions.

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