PRESS EDTORIAL:Guidance from the most important date in Port history

It is easy to make the case that Feb. 1, 1977 is the most important date in the history of the City of Port Washington.

The day after that date, the only front-page editorial ever published in Ozaukee Press proclaimed: “Future generations of Port Washington residents may want to celebrate Feb.1 as a holiday. For it was on Feb. 1, 1977 that five members of the city council voted to develop the magnificent potential of the Port Washington lakefront.”

 The council’s 5-2 decision to approve an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with planning for the construction of a small-boat harbor of refuge ultimately transformed the city.

It set in motion forces that created beauty where there was once blight, turned the city’s place on the edge of Lake Michigan into an invaluable asset that welcomed the public to its charms, invited new residents, businesses and visitors to the community and, more than 40 years later, is powering a surge of development unlike anything seen in any Wisconsin city of Port Washington’s size.

There is a lesson in this history for today’s city officials: When improvements in public lakefront facilities are called for, don’t pinch pennies. An area of the small-boat harbor now should be dredged so that a pier can be extended and new marina slips added; onshore improvements are needed as well.

 It is certain that any decisions about the harbor and marina made today will be easier than that 1977 council vote. That decision was fraught with bitter controversy, applauded by some (including this newspaper), but condemned by others who voiced short-sighted and narrow-minded resentments.

Spending for the new harbor will benefit only those privileged to own a boat, they said, and worse, will bring outsiders to the city to take advantage of the boating facilities provided by local taxpayers.

The naysayers very nearly prevailed. Though the federal government promised to pay for building the massive rubble breakwaters that would create the small-boat harbor, uncertainties over financing for the marina facilities within the harbor were exploited by foes of the project, who were able to force an advisory referendum in November 1978. A 52% majority voted to instruct officials to stop harbor planning.

A year later, the Common Council voted to give up on the new harbor. The first paragraph of the Ozaukee Press news story reporting the vote read: “Port Washington will continue to have the worst harbor on the west shore of Lake Michigan.”

Two funding breakthroughs saved the project and the city’s future. The state increased its contribution to the marina construction cost and Ozaukee County agreed to help the city pay the local share.

The harbor was built and the marina opened in 1982. Before the end of the 20th century, a brilliant plan to create the peninsula that is now Rotary Park to protect the north slip of the old commercial harbor and expand the marina into the very heart of the city came to fruition.

The length of Port Washington’s leap forward with its redeveloped lakefront can only be fully appreciated by comparing it to the maritime slum it left behind.

The harbor built in the 1930s, and unchanged nearly half a century later when it was surrounded by an industrial brownfield, was designed for commercial ships, coal boats servicing the power plant and oil tankers that brought cargoes of fuel oil and gasoline into the north slip. A gasoline leak in the pipeline from the tanker dock to a fuel storage area once caused the evacuation of the downtown and nearby residential neighborhoods.

The wide breakwater gap designed to accommodate freighters and tankers left the harbor open to storm seas that invaded the city, threatened the lives and livelihoods of commercial fishermen and their moored tugs, tossed debris onto streets and damaged shore property. The year before the council made its historic decision to commit to a new harbor, 22 pleasure boats anchored in the breakwater basin were driven ashore, shipwrecked by an epic storm.

Today, the small boat harbor is perfectly safe from those storms, but is in need of some updating, including dredging to make better use of available space and adding slips that will quickly be filled by boats on a long waiting list, adding to the already generous revenue contributed to the city coffer by the marina. The marina parking lot has not been resurfaced since it was built in 1982 and requires work estimated to cost $220,000.

Recalling the most important date in Port Washington history should eliminate any hesitancy about making these investments.

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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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