City considers joining forces with other lakeshore communities in pursuit of NOAA-funded project
It’s been five years since Port Washington officials first pitched the concept that the city would be the ideal headquarters for a Lake Michigan maritime sanctuary.
Today, the sanctuary is still in the planning process. But instead of vying to become the singular headquarters for the proposed sanctuary, Port Washington and three other lakeshore communities — Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers — are considering a regional approach and, in effect, splitting the headquarters by having offices in each, Port Mayor Tom Mlada told the Common Council Tuesday.
“Here, you could come and start in one community and work your way up or down the lakeshore. In each community, you would have something special to concentrate on,” Mlada said. “This has been a long time in coming, but it’s an opportunity for each of us.”
It could also be the first step toward other joint ventures, whether they be in educational initiatives or tourism programs, he said.
Mlada, who met with the mayors of Sheboygan and Manitowoc to discuss the sanctuary proposal last week, said he will ask the Common Council to consider a resolution approving the partnership and supporting the creation of a national marine sanctuary in the area.
That resolution probably won’t come to aldermen when they meet next week, Mlada said, noting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not yet started the nomination process. That’s expected to occur in the next several weeks as the agency publishes the rules of the process, he said.
The proposed sanctuary would encompass an 875-square-mile area of Lake Michigan stretching from Port to Two Rivers in an attempt to protect the many shipwrecks in the area.
That area contains 33 known shipwrecks, including 14 intact wrecks, and holds the best examples of many vessels that sailed the waters off Wisconsin, officials said.
Proposed by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the sanctuary would complement the state’s Maritime Trail, officials said.
NOAA is the trustee for 14 marine protected areas encompassing more than 150,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters, including 13 national marine sanctuaries.
Among those is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, Mich.
But the Alpena model, where one community holds a large facility for the sanctuary, isn’t going to occur here, Mlada said.
“NOAA has been blunt in saying this isn’t the best way to do things,” he said, leading to the joint effort with other lakeshore communities.
Although the mid-Lake Michigan sanctuary being proposed for the area was first considered several years ago, NOAA has been hamstrung because its site evaluation list for sanctuaries was deactivated in the mid-1990s.
“We basically had no way of nominating a sanctuary,” Ellen Brody, NOAA’s regional coordinator for the Great Lakes and northeast region, said this spring.
The rules that are expected to be published in the next week or so will re-establish the process to create a sanctuary, she said, and communities can then begin the nomination process.
There is a great deal of interest in the program, Brody said, adding she does not know how many nominations will be received.
“To make our application (for the sanctuary) as robust as possible, the best way is to work together on this,” Mlada said. “You have four communities who are very supportive and very much on board with this effort.”
Existing facilities, such as the Maritime Museum in Manitowoc and Spaceport in Sheboygan, and the Exploreum being built in Port Washington could complement the communities’ effort, he added.
The impact of a marine sanctuary could be huge for the city, Mlada said.
“There are so many upsides,” he said. “The economic impact of NOAA having a presence here would be substantial. This would be yet another reason for people to come to our community.”
In addition to being an economic draw, the sanctuary would also be an outstanding educational resource, Mlada said.
“The sky’s the limit on what we could potentially do and the impact it could have,” he said.