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Annex Coal Dock Park PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 11 May 2016 17:09

The City of Port Washington needs to annex Coal Dock Park.

Technically, the park, just across the harbor from the downtown, is within the city.

Practically, it’s remote. You can get there from here, but not easily.

It’s time to get serious about bridging the gap between the city center and the park with, yes, a bridge.

A pedestrian bridge over the harbor the short distance between Rotary Park and Coal Dock Park is not a new idea. It has been talked about since the idea of turning the power plant coal dock into a park was born in the early days of the 21st century. But it has been treated as a fantasy, science fiction that might come true in a faraway future.

The time for the bridge is now. There are many ideas out there for completing the development of Coal Dock Park, but the bridge should move to the top of the list. The bridge should be the priority.

Don’t get us wrong. Coal Dock Park is a community asset as it is, valued by fishermen, walkers and runners and people who go there just to experience the intimacy with the water that this remarkable piece of land jutting into Lake Michigan offers.

Yet in the two and one-half years the park has been open it has not met the expectation that its 17 acres of space would make it an ideal site for festivals and other large community gatherings. Events held there do not connect with the downtown—and bringing people downtown is the whole point of these events—owing mostly to the perception that the park is separate from the city and difficult to access. 

To its credit, the city provides a public harborwalk that connects the park to the downtown, but it is used little, perhaps because it passes through an environment that can seem inhospitable as it follows the perimeter of the old commercial west harbor slip through a canyon of high buildings. As an alternative, it’s easy enough to walk to and from the park along Wisconsin Street, but that is a walk many visitors aren’t interested in taking.

A bridge would instantly make Coal Dock Park a part of the downtown. Events—a revived Maritime Heritage Festival among many others—could seamlessly spread over the marina area, Rotary Park and Coal Dock Park.

This should not be dismissed as a luxury or expensive frill or some sort of audacious flyer. The City of Port Washington has managed public lakefront development far more daunting than a pedestrian bridge over the 165 feet of water that separates its two harbor parks.

To transform the north harbor slip, which was open to storm seas and unsuitable for recreational watercraft, into the appealing heart-of-the-city marina it is today, the city in the late 1980s, backed by federal and state grants, set in motion the movement of hundreds of tons of earth and stone to form the peninsula that protects the marina and creates the land that is Rotary Park. Now that was audacious!

In 2009, the Ozaukee Interurban Trail opened its pedestrian and bike bridge over I-43 in the Town of Grafton. The bridge, built with state grants and private donations, is 415 feet long. Port Washington’s harbor bridge would be small stuff by comparison.

The harbor bridge would be a wholly positive addition to the city’s lakefront. It should not be a concern that the structure would close the west slip to large powerboats and all sailboats. That part of the harbor is vulnerable to seas rolling in from the lake and has a constant surge that makes it unfit for mooring boats. The few charter fishing boats that put up with the conditions to tie up there could find better accommodations in the marina. Meanwhile, an arched bridge design would allow smaller craft to pass beneath it for fishing or paddling.

Beyond its role of joining Coal Dock Park to the downtown, the harbor bridge would be an appealing attraction in its own right—nirvana for connoisseurs of water views.

Some of the city government resources currently being devoted to promoting private commercial development of the harbor area would be well spent advocating for this public lakefront development—with a greater return of benefit to the community. 

City officials have proven adept at securing grants for rebuilding the breakwater and for creating Coal Dock Park itself. They should take on the harbor bridge challenge with a goal of similar success. Sooner rather than later—because it’s time to annex Coal Dock Park.

Essential road repair material: taxes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 04 May 2016 17:02

Residents of the Town of Saukville recently participated in one of the oldest forms of democracy, a town meeting. The big issue was roads. That was fitting. It’s a safe bet roads were an issue when the Athenians held their meetings in the world’s first democracy 2,500 years ago and when New Englanders held their town meetings in some of the first American exercises in democracy 250 years ago. Building and maintaining roads are fundamental responsibilities of government in any age.

Some roads in the Town of Saukville are in such bad shape they look as though they were built in Athenian times. “We have a lot of crappy roads,” Town Chairman Don Hamm admitted at the annual meeting.

His adjective certainly applies to Blueberry Road, which is so potholed that residents said they feared users would be injured. One taxpayer declared the road so bad it should be closed if it’s not fixed soon.

The Town Board member who monitors Town of Saukville roads, Curt Rutkowski, called Blueberry Road one of the worst in the town.

One of the worst? If there are any roads worse than Blueberry, the town’s road problem has to be upgraded from serious to critical. In a photograph in last week’s Ozaukee Press, Blueberry looked like a recently strafed and bombed war-zone thoroughfare.

Blueberry Road passes through a bog, which causes instability that complicates maintenance. The town is known for its distinctive geology, a gift of the Ice Age that, besides wetlands and character-rich topography, includes, ironically, a vast resource of road-building material in its gravel deposits. The town also has some notoriety for its epic battles with Ozaukee County over mining that resource, as well as for episodes of discord among its leadership. (To his credit, Hamm seems to have the latter situation settled down.)

None of that explains why the Town of Saukville has what many would consider the worst roads in Ozaukee County.

The Town of Saukville is not the smallest town in Ozaukee County in terms of either population or property valuation, yet its operating budget has little to spare for its road maintenance needs. That could be fixed by raising taxes, but levy limits imposed by the state Legislature block that option.

The town’s road challenges expose the downside of levy limits. This intrusion by the state to nullify local government’s prerogative to set tax rates to meet its needs may seem like a boon to taxpayers—until you account for its effect on services. Services once taken for granted, including road repair, are being cut for the lack of adequate tax revenue in many Wisconsin municipalities and towns.

Levy limits should be made more flexible to at least allow local taxes to rise in concert with the consumer price index. Even that, unfortunately, would likely not get the Town of Saukville out of its road maintenance hole.

The town meeting did result in some hope for a somewhat smoother ride on Blueberry Road. Attendees approved motions to fix the worst of the potholes near the road’s north end this year and to authorize the Town Board to decide how much to spend on those interim repairs. 

Hamm pointed out to his fellow town residents that this band-aid, while necessary first aid, doesn’t address the road repair backlog. He said he plans to develop a five-year plan to catch up on deferred road maintenance.

That’s a needed first step. The next step would be paying for it. The one exception to state levy limits is a provision allowing tax levy increases when they are approved by voters in a referendum.

Yes, to get their roads fixed, Town of Saukville residents will probably have to vote to raise their taxes. If it comes to that, driving on town roads in their current state ought to encourage a yes vote.

The mistake waiting to happen PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 27 April 2016 18:01

Yes, this is another editorial opposing the sale of public land at the north edge of Port Washington’s downtown marina for commercial development.

But before reading why this development is wrong for Port Washington, please study the photograph at right. It was taken in 1965 from a vantage point beside the north harbor slip looking directly at the site now proposed for a commercial building to be called the Blues Factory.

The huge building at the center of the photo sits exactly where the Blues Factory will be located if approved by the Common Council. The Blues Factory building, while not as high as that old Wisconsin Chair Co. manufacturing plant, would fill the space at the end of the harbor in much the same way.

The photo, made as people lined up to tour a Navy vessel during the city’s very first Fish Day celebration, is instructive too in that it shows the Port Washington lakefront in its crude state before it was remade into the beautiful place it is today with its refined and generous access to the beauty of Lake Michigan and its welcoming heart-of-the-city small-boat harbor and peninsular park. 

The linchpin of that historic civic improvement was the removal of the chair factory buildings that once walled off the waterfront. It is a disturbing irony that in the push to bring commercial land use back to the lakefront the building proposed for the development is designed to resemble in some ways the chair factory plant in this picture.

Large numbers of Port Washington citizens have made it clear—with petitions to the city, letters to this newspaper, impassioned statements at meetings and hundreds of lawn signs—that they do not want lakefront land owned by the public sold to a developer for a building that will once again close off lake views.

Yet city officials are persisting and as early as next week may take another step toward selling the land for the Blues Factory. The Common Council has the power to do this, of course, but the question of how its members can consider it good public policy to force a development, which requires the sacrifice of public lakefront land and taxpayer subsidies for the developer, on a community that doesn’t want it defies a reasonable answer.

The best answer elected officials can come up with is that the land is wasted space in its current use as a parking lot and the city needs the economic development that would come from building the Blues Factory on it. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it—with the implication that people who oppose the land sale don’t understand the need to make the tax base grow.

The truth is that just about everyone here gets it about the importance of downtown development. It is telling that people who are responsible for the current resurging economic vitality of the downtown—business owners and operators who have invested in the downtown and stand to benefit from further economic growth—are among those who strongly oppose the Blues Factory proposal.

They understand that Port Washington’s appeal to investors, visitors and would-be new residents derives from its fortunate place on the shore of Lake Michigan and the civic improvements that invite the public to see and approach that priceless natural asset. They recognize the folly of compromising that asset for the benefit of a harborside business.

Acting on the obsolete and thoroughly discredited notion that nearness to the water and wonderful views make a piece of land such as the north slip parking lot an appropriate site for commercial development makes Port Washington an outlier among communities that are blessed with proximity to the water. From the Door County village of Sister Bay, which has purchased waterfront land from private owners to protect it for public use, to the metropolis of Chicago, which has turned lakeshore land worth hundreds of millions of dollars to developers into parks, municipalities are preserving public access to their waterfront land and prospering by doing it.

The drive to develop the Port Washington harbor site did not bloom organically to fill a need. Rather, it was spun, twisted and contorted to satisfy the mindset of officials to get something—anything—commercial on the parking lot land. First it was to be a brewpub. Then there was talk of a “destination shopping” outlet. But the only proposal the city received came from the Blues Factory developers, a proposal so open-ended and with such uncertain financing that it did not even include a defined offer to buy the land. 

Since then city staff, elected officials and the developers have been meeting in an attempt to make the Blues Factory happen in spite of those uncertainties. Details haven’t been revealed, but it is all but certain that taxpayers will have to subsidize the development. 

The Blues Factory deal will probably not include a solution to the marina parking problem it will create. The development will displace dozens of parking places while adding the need for more than 100 additional parking spaces. Harbor Commission members have voiced worries that marina business—a mainstay of the city economy—will suffer as a result.

For its part, The Blues Factory is a worthy concept that as the focus of an increasingly bitter controversy is a victim of a bad location choice. The history of the Paramount Records division of the Wisconsin Chair Co., especially its role in bringing legendary blues performers to this area in the early 20th century, deserves recognition, and developer Chris Long’s vision of a blues-oriented performance hall, restaurant, banquet facility and museum deserves support. But it does not deserve a lakefront location on public land. Had they been less fixated on developing the parking lot site, city officials should have been able to find a suitable place for it.

The relentless push to turn the north slip parking lot into commercial space has had a corrosive effect on the community. The ignoring of petitions opposing the sale signed by nearly 1,000 residents, the defiant statements by Mayor Tom Mlada and several aldermen that the land is going to be sold for development regardless of the public opposition that they characterize, incredibly and disingenuously, as a small minority of residents and the recurring closed meetings have soured a segment of the public on city government to the extent that there have even been a few comments (alluded to in a recent letter to the editor from Ald. Doug Biggs) alleging some sort of malfeasance by officials. 

That should stop. There is no basis for such talk. These officials are honest men who want to do what is right for Port Washington.

But many thoughtful citizens who also want what’s best for the city, who have a clear understanding of the need to keep the public spaces that farsighted officials of the past created around the lakefront free of the clutter of development, think their elected representatives are wrong in their singleminded quest to sell the public lakefront land. They see them marching toward a mistake that will haunt the city for as long as the brick and mortar of the Factory building endure.   

There are seven aldermen. Does not one of them worry they are making that mistake? Is no one on the Common Council open to admitting they have doubts? Is no one ready to voice those doubts and stand up to lead the city away from this mistake waiting to happen?

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