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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Critics Worry Bradford Beach Pavilion Bar Proposal Would Further Privatize Space

Ellen Halley
The Bradford Beach Pavilion on January 27, 2021.

One of Milwaukee County’s most cherished and popular shared spaces is Bradford Beach. Swimmers, sunbathers and volleyball players enjoy its sweeping vista along Lake Michigan.

But there are rumblings of concern over a proposal, critics say, would privatize a portion of this public treasure.

Its 1950s-era pavilion, officially called the Bradford Beach Bathhouse, resembles a ship with its curved lines and second-floor deck. Acccording to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the structure is an “excellent example of the Art Moderne style popular during the Post-World War II period” and received historic landmark designation in 2005.

In 2019, Nicholas Hynes and his partner signed a 5-year lease with Milwaukee County to operate a restaurant on the first level of the historic Bradford Beach Pavilion. They also operate the tiki hut bars on the beach.

Last year, Hynes and his partner floated the idea of constructing a wall of cabanas along the upper deck. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission issued a deafening no.

So Hynes and his partner are now proposing putting tables and chairs on the second floor, and installing a modular bar on that level. On Tuesday, he outlined the plan for members of the Milwaukee County Parks, Energy and Environment Committee.

Credit Screenshot / Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission
Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission
A rendering of the proposed second level bar at the Bradford Beach Pavilion.

“We wanted to make it as seamless as possible and not really mess with the infrastructure too much because we know it’ a historical building. We have a modular unit that’s built off site that can be in and at the end of the term easily be taken out at the end of our lease,” said Hynes. “So that it wouldn’t cause any issues and we just wanted to make sure that it was in the vein of what was intended to be the atmosphere of the beach.”

While Hynes considered the proposal seamless, it worries others.

Under Hynes’ plan, the tables and bar could be used by customers only. Critics say that would amount to privatization of the public structure.

At Tuesday’s meeting, committee members, including Supervisor Liz Sumner, said they’ve been hearing from constituents who are worried.

“I, like everyone, on this committee received a lot of emails. You know it seems like people that have been writing to us are concerned that we’re selling Bradford Beach; there’s concerns about access the beach and things like that. And from these letters, it’s unclear to me if people think they’re not going to be able to access the actual beach,” said Sumner.

Jeremy Lucas with Milwaukee County Parks responded emphatically that the beach is not being sold.

“The premises that’s listed in the lease is clearly outlined as the building, the upper deck, the restaurant. Parks still has space reserved for our lifeguarding areas,” said Lucas. “I would also interject that every dollar that our partners bring in helps the county parks department provide services that otherwise have been provided by decreasing tax levy over time."

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Nicholas Hynes says his team manages the wheelchair accessibility program that rolled out at Bradford Beach last summer, and gave of one of beach's three tiki huts for the beach volleyball business to use.

Restauranteur Hynes told the panel he thinks of the arrangement as a partnership.

READ: RampUp Milwaukee Works To Make Bradford Beach Handicap Accessible

Last summer when the parks system rolled out ramps and mats to allow wheelchair access to the beach, Hynes said his team took on the job of rolling the ramps into place each day.

"We’re the ones who manage the actual servicing to everyone. Also, with Tomas (Goldsmith) who runs the volleyball, we actually gave him one of the three tiki huts that were previously all just used for bars, we actually gave one to them in order to be good partners and allow them to run their business and have that facility,” explained Hynes.

Not everything about the partnership is glamorous.

“We actually clean all the bathrooms and the beach every single day,” he said.

No matter the misgivings of committee members, Chairman Sheldon Wasserman said the panel holds no power in deciding whether the Bradford Beach Pavilion project moves forward.

“Because the lease, as it’s been previously approved, give the rights to the parks department, they have the right to fully go with this. To be point blank, the parks department is approving this and we don’t have a role according to the law and according to the contract,” he said.

Yet Wasserman said the public can share its views at the meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27 of the Lakefront Development Advisory Commission.

READ: Milwaukee County Advisory Group Wants More Time To Consider Bradford Beach Pavilion Proposal

In recent years, the county parks system has increasingly formed partnerships with private firms, like that of restauranteur Hynes, to offset budget cuts the system has suffered.

Meanwhile, the county is partnering with the Wisconsin Policy Forum to come up with sustainable funding for the parks. The first meeting in a multi-month deep dive took place Tuesday afternoon.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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