County closes all three Mitchell Park domes

Questions about structural problems rise

The Mitchell Park Domes
The Mitchell Park Domes

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:22 am

A week after a falling chunk of concrete at the Mitchell Park Conservatory led Milwaukee County officials to close its desert exhibit, all three domes were closed indefinitely.

The Mitchell Park Domes
The Mitchell Park Domes

County Executive Chris Abele announced Friday the domes would be closed “over the weekend,” but the conservatory was still closed this morning and Abele has not said when it will reopen.

The Arid Dome, or desert dome, was closed on Jan. 28 after employees discovered a piece of concrete had fallen from its ceiling.

The county has released few details about what happened on Jan. 28 and why it decided to close the entire conservatory a week later.

“The domes are structurally sound, but there are still concerns,” said Abele spokesperson Melissa Baldauff. “We are waiting on more information by the engineering firm and hope to have that this week.”

Baldauff said more details about the domes and their structural problems will be released today at 3 p.m.

Construction of the Mitchell Park Domes was completed in 1967, and they have been an iconic Milwaukee landmark ever since.

County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb said he’s skeptical of the Domes’ structural integrity.

“That doesn’t seem to match up with concrete falling and it being closed,” he said.

Lipscomb said Abele and the Parks Department should be more forthcoming about what’s happening at the aging city landmark.

“We were told that they’re going to share some information from the engineer,” Lipscomb said. “I thought we were getting something Friday, but that wasn’t the case. It does beg the question: What should we have known, and when?”

The Parks department asked for and received $500,000 from the county on January 30, 2014 for “additional inspection and repair of the Arid and Show Domes,” according to Finance, Personnel and Audit committee minutes published on the county’s website.

Lipscomb said the County Board didn’t receive any updates on the domes in the two years since that money was allocated to the parks department.

“I’m not sure if, at that time, they had reports that were more detailed,” Lipscomb said. “We’d like all the information … and there needs to be a broader community conversation about whether this is an icon that we’d like to save for future generations.”

State Senator Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, who is running against Abele for county executive in April, released a statement this morning that blamed Abele for putting off repairs on the domes and accused him of secretly lobbying for legislation “that put our parks and cultural institutions at risk.”

“It’s a tragedy that the future of our Domes has been compromised by millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance that has piled up under the last two county executives and that there has yet to be a plan to keep the public informed on what will happen with the Domes future,” Larson said. “As county executive, I will work with our neighbors to do what it takes to ensure our Domes are available for future generations.”

Baldauff denied Larson’s accusations and said the domes have a long history of structural problems and repairs that extend years before Abele was elected.

“Effective managers understand that observing a problem doesn’t solve it, as anyone who’s ever been a successful leader can attest to,” Baldauff said. “That’s why instead of pointing fingers at previous County Executives and previous County Boards from which he inherited a mess, Chris Abele has spent five years catching up on deferred maintenance in Milwaukee County. Decisions regarding public safety and significant investments of taxpayer resources aren’t to be taken lightly or made into political theater. The county executive knows that the resources required to do large scale projects such as the work necessary on the Domes belong to the public, which is why he is committed to soliciting community input before making any decisions.”

Check back at this afternoon for more information on this developing story.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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