Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Board Approves Studying Demolition, Other Options For The Domes

Policy does not support demolition, which many supervisors remain opposed to.

By - Dec 16th, 2022 12:34 pm
Mitchell Park Domes' Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mitchell Park Domes’ Tropical Dome. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

For the first time in eight years, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has a new policy for the Mitchell Park Domes.

The Domes have long been in a state of disrepair, and the need to plan for their future was given urgency roughly a decade ago when pieces of concrete began to fall from the structures, first built in 1959.

The new policy adopted Thursday shifts the board’s stance on The Domes, asking the county executive’s administration and Milwaukee County Parks to evaluate a number of possible options for the future of The Domes, instead a singular focus on the “repair and preservation” of The Domes.

The notable departure from the board’s old stance is that the body is now formally interested in evaluating the costs associated with demolishing the structures. “Inaction by Milwaukee County, or the do nothing’ option, when considering paths forward for The Domes, is tantamount to demolition by neglect as the facility continues to deteriorate,” says an amendment added Thursday to the policy.

The amendment clause uses the voice of the board to tell the county executive and parks department that doing nothing is not an option the board will accept, because it is materially the same as choosing a policy of demolition. “And we cannot have that,” said Sup. Sheldon Wasserman. “The purpose of this resolution as a whole is to move things forward.”

The new policy directs the administration, parks department, the county’s attorneys and the Office of the Comptroller to evaluate the options laid out and answer specific questions related to project feasibility and funding sources. All this will return to the board in July 2023 as a report.

The policy is intended to give supervisors updated evaluations and cost estimates for, not just demolition, but limited repairs, full renovation or a past proposal for a “New Urban Botanical Park and Conservatory.” The last option is a reference to the plan created by Arts Market LLC in 2019, which a team of accountants and lawyers consulting for the county found the plan as a whole was not a feasible way to save the domes.

The Domes have long been a sacred cow for the board. Despite the county’s fiscal situation and the parks department’s systemwide maintenance backlog approaching half-a-billion dollars, any suggestion that The Domes be demolished has always been swiftly shot down.

Since the board established a policy of “repair and preservation” the county has spent more than $1.5 million on emergency repairs and planning efforts, including a years-long task force. But The Domes are nowhere closer to being repaired and preserved than they were in 2016 — with no money appropriated and no actionable plan approved by both the board and the county executive.

The board adopted the new policy on a 16-1 vote, with only Sup. Ryan Clancy voting in opposition.

Martinez Amendment Fails

The board considered, but ultimately rejected, a second amendment to the new policy. This one from Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez who represents Mitchell Park on the board. It would have made many revisions and additions to the policy authored by Wasserman.

The amendment included old cost estimates, as well as language that necessitated “involving the expertise of consultants with demonstrated experience with old buildings such as ZS Engineering, and including members of the County Board including the representative from The Domes’ district, and involving a public input process.”

But other board members said they thought it weighted historic preservation and set the table for another process like the task force — which the board already tried.

“It looks like a historic preservationist wrote it, frankly,” said Sup. Steve Taylor.

At the previous meeting of the board’s Parks and Culture Committee, Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, suggested hiring a contractor with experience working on historic buildings to assist in the new Domes plan.

Taylor added that he thought the amendment would “taint” the fact-finding process set out by the new policy and create a narrative to get a result that you want, or that certain individuals want, or certain organizations want.

Sup. Shawn Rolland told his colleagues that he watched the 2016 meeting when the board established its previous policy and that assurances were made then that the county would evaluate all possible options for the future of The Domes.”And then we, subsequently, over the next six years banged our head against the wall and all these different ideas that would potentially preserve The Domes, and none of them have gotten across the line,” Rolland said. “And we have never really explored any of the other options.”

Rolland pointed to the clause that would bring in historic building consultants and include the supervisor from The Domes district in evaluating potential options for The Domes. “So now, we have this resolution that says, ‘Yeah, we’re going to look at all the options, but also we’re going to have some folks that are really into historical preservation, consultants who have experience with that, we’re going to have the supervisor from that area only, you know, putting the thumb on the scale,'” Rolland said. “I know that might sound personal, but like, it’s what happened in 2016… So if we vote for this, then we’re going to get the Domes Task Force part two, the sequel, and the sequel’s never as fun or good.”

The board rejected the amendment on a 6-11 vote.

Martinez said he included the language about historic building consultants “so the county can get the most accurate information.” He added that preservation of The Domes stalled because there’s been no action moving it forward and the reason demolition was not considered since 2016 is “because it wouldn’t be supported by the public.”

Martinez explained to his colleagues that he never wanted to be involved with anything even contemplating demolition of The Domes, but he would support the new policy because it was the “best available option that we have to be able to move forward.”

“And if you’ll forgive my language, I’ll be damned if The Domes ever get bulldozed,” he said. “And anything that will push for demolition, I guarantee, I will fight every step of the way.”

The Domes

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

One thought on “MKE County: Board Approves Studying Demolition, Other Options For The Domes”

  1. Mingus says:

    The Domes are a symbol and icon of the Milwaukee County Parks System in the same way the schooner Denis Sullivan was an iconic symbol of the harbor and Milwaukee’s maritime history. Discovery World did not seem to have any problems disposing of the Denis Sullivan. I hope the County Board does not have the same attitude towards the Domes. If the politicians can find a hundred of millions of dollars for Fiserv Forum and the Deer District so that billionaires who own the Milwaukee Bucks can enrich themselves at the taxpayers expense, there should be a way to keep the Domes for the citizens of Milwaukee County.

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