The Park District would likely run on a cooperative basis with the harbor’s longtime private club if the government body decides to assume the waterway’s lease with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
Park officials said Sunday they are far from a decision on picking up the lease with the , which expires at the end of 2012. But, going forward, they added they'd much prefer a local harbor operator like the association instead of a possible out-of-town company that could be awarded the lease via an open-bidding process.
Park District President Jim Brault, accompanied by board member Darrell Graham and park executive director Steve Wilson, told an overflow crowd at the meeting room that the harbor would be run in similar manner to the village’s municipal golf course, baseball fields and hockey rinks. The users of these facilities have deciding sway on how they’re run and help with their operations and maintenance.
“To the extent we strike some sort of (cooperative) deal, we want boats in the water and people to enjoy the lakefront,” Brault said. “We make no pretense we know how to operate a harbor.
“We’re not looking to change the fundamental character of how the harbor is run," Brault said. "If we lease, we would keep the overall management local here … What I see long-term is a well-run, functioning harbor that has its (financial) needs met. I don’t see the Park District profiting from its endeavors.”
Park District was prodded to look into lease
The Park District was asked by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District a year ago to look into how it could assume a new lease. As a governmental body, it is exempted from an open bidding process that would be applied to private organizations.
If the Park District declined to take over the lease, the harbor association would be forced to compete with bidders solicited potentially from all over the country by the water reclamation district.
“If there’s no deal, they’ll do a national search to find a harbor management company,” Brault warned the harbor association members. “They have an obligation to look nationally. We’d like to keep the management local.”
The Wilmette Harbor, has held its own despite the recession, with a less than 10 percent decline in open mooring posts. That could make it a choice target for an out-of-town company. Winnetka resident Scott Rodgers reminded Wilson afterwards that the harbor is the only one between Chicago’s Montrose Harbor and Waukegan.
“I fear if it’s going out to a public bid (and the harbor association loses out), everything gets more expensive and the whole nature is changed,” Rodgers said.
Brault told the crowd the Water Reclamation District wanted the Park District to take its time in determining whether it wanted to take over the lease. The 50-year-deal with the Harbor Association, which has borne the costs of maintaining the harbor all along, was scheduled to expire later this summer, but was extended to the end of 2012 by the Water Reclamation District.
Final decision by autumn?
Brault said he hoped to have a final decision “by the time you put your boats away” at the end of this season, meaning around October. The Park District and the harbor association have not yet had formal talks about teaming up.
He vowed transparency in the process.
“There is no backroom deal,” he said. “We’re not trying to go behind anyone’s back.”
Most harbor association members welcomed the presence of Brault, Graham and Wilson and their ability to respond to questions. The only contentious period came when a Glenview boat owner asked about potential higher fees for non-Wilmette residents if the harbor was under municipal control. Another boat owner was upset about dramatically rising property-tax bills dovetailing with big Park District expenses for new facilities.
The park officials said attorneys told them the nature of the lease would change to a commercial classification if they had a two-tiered fee structure for residents and non-residents. That would be considered a for-profit deal, with the Water Reclamation District getting a cut of the revenue.
Brault and Wilson said they will handle the inevitable opposition to Park District involvement in the same manner as with past new projects.
“They think we’re an interloper,” Brault said. “No matter what we do, there are people who think we made the wrong decision.”