Group aims to revive stalled lighthouse restoration

Nonprofit organization to launch fundraising for costly repairs to landmark

A painted sky created a colorful backdrop for the Port Washington lighthouse. A nonprofit organization plans to begin fundraising for the restoration of the landmark, which is owned by the city. Press file photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Few would argue that Port Washington’s iconic lighthouse has lost its luster — the porthole windows remain broken and rust has stained the white exterior. 

But that may be about to change. The Friends of the Port Washington Parks and Recreation Department recently formed a lighthouse subcommittee to create a master plan for maintenance of the structure and begin fundraising to finance repairs.

It’s a daunting task. When the city took ownership of the lighthouse in 2018, estimates were that it would cost as much as $30,000 to fix the windows and as much as $1 million to repaint the structure.

“This has been a long-time conversation. Something needs to be done,” Recreation Director Kylie Schulte said. “We need to determine if it does cost $1 million to repaint the lighthouse. Does it cost $30,000 for the windows?”

Then, she said, the group will need to develop a fundraising strategy.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of money,” Schulte said. “It has to be fundraised. I think if the community sees this master plan and sees how much the work will cost, maybe some donors and volunteers will come forward.”

As the city’s beaches continue to be lost as lake levels rise, Schulte said the importance of the lighthouse increases.

“With the beaches disappearing, the lighthouse is what we have left for people to experience the lakefront,” she said. “Anytime you walk to the lakefront in summer, you see people walking out there.

“The lighthouse is our most iconic feature, and we need to take care of it.

“I’m hoping to see something done in 2020.”

Justin Myers, president of the Friends of Parks and Recreation, said the group’s focus is the lighthouse.

“Things have stalled, and we said we need to do something,” he said. “The lighthouse is something near and dear to all our hearts, and every day that goes by is another day the lighthouse isn’t fixed.

“We want to change that. Everybody has been gung ho about the lighthouse.”

Part of the subcommittee’s mission will be to figure out the governmental channels that need to be navigated and figure out how to move things forward, Myers said. 

The group will also have to look at whether the lighthouse’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places makes it eligible for grants, he said.

The members will also have to look at big-cost items like the painting and see if it makes sense to perhaps seal the structure initially, then raise the needed funds and paint later, Myers said.

“Will we be doing additional harms by doing that? I don’t know, but it’s something we need to look at,” he said.

The process, he added, will take time.

“We’re in the very infancy stage right now,” Myers said. “The very first step is to find out how much is it going to cost if we do it this year. How much will it cost if we do it in two years, three years? 

“Our goal is to restore the lighthouse, to put it back to the beautiful lighthouse it once was, and I think everyone can support that. Once we get it fixed, I think it will become the beacon of Port Washington it once was.”

The Port lighthouse has been a symbol of the city for decades. Built in 1935 for $38,000, the Art Deco structure consists of a metal tower that rests on a 20-foot-square cement base that has large arches on each of its faces so it doesn’t obstruct the view of mariners using the harbor.

Images of the lighthouse have come to personify Port, emblazoned on everything from the city logo to postcards. It’s a tourist attraction as well as a symbol, drawing a steady stream of visitors to the lakefront.

When the city took ownership of the lighthouse, it pledged to maintain the structure. But levy limits and tight budgets have meant that there haven’t been funds to restore the lighthouse.

“I wish we had more (available) money to spend,” Ald. Jonathan Pleitner said. “To me, there are so many other things that have to take priority. They’re not the sexy things, the iconic things, but they’re necessary things. 

“It needs work, but so do a lot of things around town. That’s the reality, unfortunately.”

Mayor Marty Becker said it’s wrong to say the lighthouse has been forgotten by the city.

“It has not been forgotten,” he said. “Our problem’s been the tax levy. There’s no money for roads, for park and rec, for everyday things that keep the city up and functioning.”

And, he said, the city’s been diligently working to repair the breakwater leading to the lighthouse.

Becker said he has been working behind the scenes on “a couple things” that may help the lighthouse restoration efforts, including getting cost estimates.

At some point, Pleitner said, the city may have to consider a referendum asking voters to exceed the levy limits so it can tackle projects like the lighthouse.

“I think that’s the key to a lot of these issues,” he said.

Ald. Pat Tearney agreed, saying, “The lighthouse to me is an example of other issues we’ve got and trying to find the funds to get the things done that need to get done.

“We don’t want to tax people out of their homes. I think for some of these things, we have to go to the taxpayers and ask, what are you willing to pay for?”

Both Tearney and Ald. Mike Gasper, a member of the lighthouse committee, said the maintenance issues started not with the city but with the federal government, which didn’t keep up the structure before the city took ownership of it.

“Right now, we’re not doing worse than the federal government was,” Gasper noted. “The Coast Guard didn’t take good care of it.”

What the lighthouse has lacked is a champion, someone to spearhead a restoration effort, officials agree.

Former Mayor Tom Mlada championed the lighthouse while he was in office, heading the city’s efforts to gain ownership of it, have it named to the National Register of Historic Places and beginning fundraising, but since he left office no one has stepped up to take his place, officials said.

“I think it’s really lacking a champion to keep it in front of people and look into grants,” Ald. Dan Benning said. 

“Hopefully this new subcommittee will be that champion.”

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