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Candidates Talk to TCLF about Mitchell Park Domes

Mitchell Domes
Mitchell Domes - Photo courtesy of The Park People of Milwaukee County, Inc., 2005


Editor's Note: The fate of the Mitchell Park Domes has become a significant issue in the election for Milwaukee County Executive, to be held on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. As noted in an article recently published on TCLF’s website (and updated in a subsequent story), the Domes are Modernist conservatories that opened in the 1960s and are likely eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. They were recently closed because of spalling concrete in one of the three structures, intensifying the ongoing debate about their deferred maintenance and future. In interviews during his campaign for re-election to the position of Milwaukee County Exective, Mr. Abele has repeatedly expressed a willingness to demolish the Domes, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 1 that doing so was “a realistic option.” State Senator Chris Larson has opposed the idea and instead advocates for a rehabilitation of the structures.

TCLF reached out to the candidates and asked them to answer four questions that address the following issues:

1. The importance of the Domes
2. Residents’ perceptions of the Domes
3. Rehabilitation or replacement of the Domes
4. Their own personal memories of the Domes

The candidates' answers were lightly edited for consistency but otherwise appear verbatim. The first set of responses is from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, the incumbent:

Chris Abele. Photo courtesy of the Chris Abele campaignThe importance of the Domes: The Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes are part of the cultural identity of Milwaukee County. This icon holds fond memories not just for residents of Milwaukee County, but also for visitors from all over the state and country.

Residents’ perceptions of the Domes: People love the Domes, just like they love all of our award-winning parks system, our Milwaukee County Zoo, and the other cultural institutions that make Milwaukee great. It’s vitally important to me to preserve these assets for future generations, which is why I’ve made catching up on deferred maintenance a priority.

Rehabilitation or replacement of the Domes: This is an important question, and one I believe that the people of Milwaukee County should answer. The problems at the Domes date back to 1994. Previous County Executives and previous County Boards did not address these issues, but I am committed to getting things done at Mitchell Park.

Because of the cultural significance of the Domes and the extensive, and likely expensive, investment that will be required, the community has a vital stake in this process. I am committed to an open, transparent, and community-driven process as we move forward.

Earlier this month, I launched a steering committee comprised of stakeholders from the business community, non-profit community, neighborhood groups, and more, that has already begun meeting. Meaningful public input is extremely important on an issue as important to the community as the Domes. We look forward to not only educating the public, but to giving them a genuine opportunity to impact the course of this process. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

His own personal memories of the Domes: As a citizen, I founded the Milwaukee Film Festival, have chaired the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and have served on the Board of Directors at the Milwaukee Art Museum – I am a dedicated supporter of the arts and culture in Milwaukee County, including the Domes, of which I have many fond memories.

One memory is from 2008, years prior to my election to County Executive, when I collaborated with several other donors on a $550,000 gift to the County to fund improvements to the lighting system in the Show Dome. This project wasn’t a restoration; it was a new, innovative, avant-garde system that invigorated the Domes and remains incredibly popular. I’d like to see our community take that same approach now as we look towards the future. We don’t have to limit ourselves to improving what’s already there – we can allow ourselves to think about what the Domes can be.

This was something we saw in Milwaukee with the Calatrava at the Art Museum. Because we didn’t limit ourselves, we now have an iconic design at the Art Museum, which is a symbol for our city and helped put us on the map globally. All I’m suggesting is that we as a community give ourselves the same opportunity to think big and imagine what can be with the Domes.

The second set of responses is from state Senator Chris Larson, the challenger:

Chris Larson. Photo courtesy of Chris Larson campaignThe importance of the Domes: The Mitchell Park Domes are a community treasure, one of the crowning jewels of our parks system. They help define our county and are something to be proud of. As an impressive public venue, they have become a hub for culture and community. A community investment like this offers a special place for school groups, tourists, music, weddings, or just families like mine that want to enjoy a warm sunshine walk on a cold Wisconsin day. The Domes are a generational promise and investment; they are not just ours to enjoy today, but also to maintain for the next generation. The Domes, like our other parklands and public investments, are a vital tapestry of opportunity and exploration. Beyond the community significance, the Domes are an economic catalyst. While our parks should not be profit-making centers, they add to our economy. Their sparkling glass windows, so visible from the interstate, are a tourist magnet that offers an economic ripple effect, enriching surrounding neighborhoods and our community.

Residents’ perceptions of the Domes: People love the Domes because they are part of our heritage and are a unique Modernist design unlike anything else in the country. The Domes provide a vibrant, inspiring place where we can escape from our daily routines. Their iconic nature makes the Domes an excellent place to showcase Milwaukee’s love of parks and green spaces to family and friends visiting from out of town. Dozens of couples are married each year at the Domes. Cultural assets like the Domes are important investments that make our community a better place for our families and our neighbors. The Mitchell Park Domes boost the quality of life for everyone. Like our other parks, the Domes are an affordable getaway, making them accessible to all. The money we invest in the Domes each year gives our children a place to learn about nature and a place to play. It gives us all a place to come together to hear great music, visit a winter farmers' market, and participate in our community.

Rehabilitation or replacement of the Domes: The process of how best to safeguard the Domes is an important public conversation to have, but these discussions should take place in the context of a commitment to preserving the Domes and of presenting the facts honestly. The current County Executive has made a series of outlandish anti-Dome statements that are false and misleading. PolitiFact Wisconsin recently declared “False” not one, but two, of Abele's assertions about the Domes: he falsely claimed that attendance has been declining – in fact despite budgetary neglect, it has steadily risen during his five years in office – and he grossly exaggerated the annual operating budget, wildly claiming costs were almost double what they actually are. Lying about the impact our Domes have on our community is neither helpful nor real leadership. Replacing the Domes would be a rejection of our heritage and of our commitment to maintaining our world-class parks system. 

His own personal memories of the Domes: Like many of our neighbors, I have special childhood memories of our Domes. Now that the Domes are closed, not a week goes by without my parents sending me another picture of me at the Domes as a kid. The Domes, like other parks, are still a part of my life now, when my wife Jessica and I need to unwind and our two kids need to run around. The Domes are often the first place we think of going with our kids when it’s cold outside. Like many parents, I don’t want to look back at our family photos and see an abrupt end to pictures at the Domes because we lacked the vision or political will to find a solution. It’s important for us as a community to ensure every family has the opportunity to experience public green space. As County Executive, I'll be committed to working to ensure our Domes are safe, reopened, and are there for the next generation.