OZAUKEE PRESS EDITORIAL: Port’s harbor challenges: clean up after federal neglect

When the Manitowoc harbor’s south pier navigational beacon disappeared in a storm on Jan. 7, Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels was quick to point out that it was the Coast Guard’s problem and not the city’s.

Call it a sign of the times.

The federal government has pawned off so many of its lighthouses, along with their maintenance expenses, on municipalities and private owners that the mayor felt the need to make it perfectly clear that his city would not have to pay to replace the navigational structure.

The tall white and green fiberglass cylinder with the beacon on top was knocked off the Manitowoc breakwater by gale-driven waves and currently resides on the lake bottom.

Mayor Nickels quipped, “We can now add this to our upcoming attractions in our marine sanctuary along with the shipwrecks.”

The mayor can afford to crack a joke because when it comes to lighthouses his community is sitting pretty.

When the federal government put Manitowoc’s main lighthouse on the market eight years ago, a New York businessman with deep pockets bought it and has been paying all of its considerable deferred maintenance expenses ever since.

Port Washington should be so lucky. The City of Port owns the lighthouse on the north pierhead and is a liable for its upkeep.

This is no small burden.

The owner of the Manitowoc lighthouse has spent more than $300,000 in addition to the $30,000 purchase price to deal with deferred maintenance.

Port faces significant expenses to repair the deterioration the neglectful owner of its lighthouse—the federal government—failed to address for many years.

Fundraising plans are in the works.

Even so, the city did the right thing in acquiring the lighthouse (at no cost) last year.

The structure was up for grabs and there was fear that a new owner—a sketchy organization from Michigan had expressed an interest—would not take proper care of what has become an appealing symbol of Port Washington and a marketing image used to promote the city.

Port, like many other U.S. ports of call, would not be in this situation if the government had carried out responsible stewardship of the public’s property.

The U.S. Coast Guard is supposed to continue to service the navigation features of former federal lighthouses and see that lights and fog horns are working, but rusting steel, broken windows, structural failures and the like are left to be dealt with by the new owners.

That it can’t take care of the lighthouses it built as its duty to provide for safe navigation on its waters is a sad comment on the government of the country that owns the largest economy in the world, but hardly a shocking one these days, what with the government so dysfunctional that it has been partially shut down for more than a month.

Federal employees tasked with providing essential services are not being paid and in many cases not coming to work. This includes the members of the agency that is charged with maintaining navigational aids and other services, including rescue at sea—the U.S. Coast Guard.

Yes, Coast Guard personnel are being made to work without pay.

This is an embarrassing milestone that marks the first time in the history of the U.S. that military service men and women have not been paid.

Back at the Port Washington harbor, the feds are also refusing to repair the corroding concrete surface of the breakwater that leads to the lighthouse, though they say they will continue to maintain its structural integrity.

This is a significant problem for the city, which has made a large investment in near-shore improvements designed to make the breakwater a recreational amenity. To leave the outer part of the breakwater unsafe to walk on is not an option.

Fortunately, the city has planned for this and has accrued grants and matching funds totalling $1.1 million, and its officials are working on a promising plan to spend that money to good effect.

The idea is to install an elevated steel walkway over the damaged breakwater cap.

Walkways similar to this were built on many Great Lakes breakwaters in the past as a means of traversing ice-covered breakwaters to service lighthouses.

In Port’s case, it would be a purely recreational feature, yet an essential addition that will allow visitors and residents to walk safely to the lighthouse of which the city’s taxpayers are now proud owners.

The Common Council has commissioned engineering plans.

Barring an unforeseen problem, the project should be pushed toward an early completion.

This will make it more convenient for people to get an up-close view of the lighthouse.

They will see that its former owner allowed it to deteriorate to a sad, rusty state. And perhaps some of them will be moved to support efforts to restore this icon of Port Washington’s seafaring history.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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