Milwaukee County Working on Short-Term Fix to Reopen Mitchell Park Domes

Feb 9, 2016

The Mitchell Park Domes are one of Milwaukee County’s most popular destinations.

Signs read "DOMES ARE CLOSED Until further notice AS OF 2/6/16 Sorry for the inconvenience!" and "Facility Closed FOR STRUCTURE INSPECTION SORRY!"
Credit Michelle Maternowski

County Executive Chris Abele shuttered the aging glass structures over the weekend after a piece of concrete the size of a tennis ball plummeted 20 feet into the desert dome.

Abele announced Monday all three domes will remain shut down until a fix is found. The ultimate answer could carry a price tag of tens of millions.

Construction crews began erecting the structures in 1959. The job took eight years.

They’re made of largely of glass and steel and are 85-feet tall. One holds arid plants, another tropical, and the third houses seasonal displays.

Despite reports of falling concrete, County Executive Chris Abele says the great cultural landmark is not a catastrophe waiting to happen.
 

Cross-section illustration showing a concrete node (far left) that Milwaukee County plans to wrap to hold in any potential crumbling.
Credit Milwaukee County

“We’re evaluating a short-term fix, which involves wrapping the concrete casings that surround the joints of the steel frame, because that’s been part of the source of the issue is some of those concrete casing have been cracking and pieces have been falling,” Abele says. “So we don’t have to worry about pieces of concrete falling and the activities that take place in the Domes can take place the way they always do."

Activities including weddings under glass. The County Parks Department has started breaking the bad news to a few dozen couples, according to Director John Dargle.

“We’ve looked at our three month window right now at all the bookings. We’ve reached out to each one the wedding groups and are having those conversations,” Dargle says.

Neither Dargle now Abele would wager how much the short-term fix would cost.

But Dargle says in 2013 and 2014 Milwaukee County spent $500,000 attempting to repair the wear and tear noticed then.

“They went up there and inspected the frames, all the concrete casings throughout all three domes. We had to get a lift in there and chipped away any lose debris or concrete and then painted them and secured them through a primer,” Dargle says.

That project too was a short-term fix, yet it enabled the Domes to continue generating $800,000 a year.

Supervisor Patricia Jursik says county leaders have known for years that the Domes are in acute need of attention.

She lays blame at the feet of the Wisconsin Legislature. In 2008, county residents voted in favor of raising the local sales tax to help maintain the parks and cultural amenities.

“When your own county residents says please give us a ½ cent sales tax, we care about our parks and cultural institutions to want to invest in it. Unfortunately the county board is not given the authority to institute that sales tax. It takes state government to allow that,” Jursik says.

State leaders did not act.

Today, Jursik says, property taxes are still maxed out, but the sales tax continues to offer an option.

County Executive Abele acknowledges the Domes may eventually need replacing, despite this round of fixes.

“Longer term, we will then have time to ask ourselves as a community, do we want the Domes long term, in which we’re going to have to replace them and that’s a much bigger ticket item,” Abele says.

He shot the amount $75 million into the meeting room air.