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Residents, Park District Debate Wilmette Harbor Lease

A 50-year lease on the harbor is ending, giving the park district a chance to take over the operation. But the potential move has drawn notable opposition.

The Wilmette Park District Board of Commissioners opened up comment on its potential operation of the Wilmette Harbor, and received an audience of about 60 people with a diverse set of opinions.

The harbor is owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and nearing the end of a 50-year lease with the Wilmette Harbor Association, which has been tasked with keeping the harbor properly dredged and maintaining the 300 slips for the only Lake Michigan sailing harbor between Chicago and Waukegan.

The Wilmette Park District is entertaining the idea of taking over the lease for the next 50 years, an idea that recently churned up vocal opposition from a group of residents concerned about potential taxpayer liability.

“Your voters want you to stop,” said Wilmette businessman Dave Keenan, who has spearheaded the opposition . “Wilmette taxpayers gain nothing if Wilmette Park District takes over the harbor.”

Meanwhile Keenan's remarks and open letter drew fierce condemnation from board members: “This letter is scaremongering. It's raising issues that have no basis in fact,” said Commissioner Jim Brault. Keenan's letter suggested the park district would be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars of potential liability and repairs to the harbor, which he claimed at the meeting to gather from private research. But Brault said that the park district was still gathering facts about the costs and liability and had not yet discovered any such figures.

“Is ignorance better than due diligence?” Commissioner Darrell Graham asked rhetorically. “The real question is what is the financial impact going to be? I don't know whether the financial impact would be positive or negative.”

Kurt Harms, who has been waiting to get a boat in the harbor, suggested that the district could greatly increase the money coming in from the mooring slips, noting while a slip might cost $2,700 a year in Wilmette, non-residents of Chicago pay upwards of $4,000.

The commissioners said one reason they were considering taking over the lease at the harbor would be to ensure that a third-party, which has no community investment, does not take over the lease and drastically change the culture of the harbor.

If the water district goes into an open bidding process, its management would do a nationwide search, but if a public entity like the park district takes over operations, it could skip the bidding process altogether.

But some residents, like boat owner Steve Bobo, doubted the MWRD would get many bidders. “It's a very small harbor for commercial use,” said Bobo. “I don't know how commercially viable it is.”

The harbor has special restrictions in place to assure a certain number of slips go to smaller sailboats and racing craft such as arrows, rainbows and dolphins. People wanting boat slips may have to wait more than 10 years to get a spot in the harbor.

Brault said he was interested in maintaining a significant role for the harbor association if the park district assumes the lease, but that the association had not been forthcoming in providing operations costs and details to the park district.

The end of the lease with the non-profit Wilmette Harbor Association casts into great uncertainty the culture of the harbor, and drew impassioned pleas from young boaters who've grown up waiting for the day they could host their own sailboats in the harbor.

“A lot of guys who are on the list have been waiting on the list for years,” said Alex Borre, who works at the harbor. “I can't afford to pay $6,000 for a mooring slip. Everyone is going to be wiped out.”

Stay tuned to Patch for more on the issue. Don't forget to like us on Facebook to join the harbor debate!

Bill Smith September 01, 2011 at 07:58 PM
The harbor association has been negligent in letting the harbor accrue millions in deferred maintenance. Now they use it as an excuse to keep the harbor private for the 300 slip holders? Using your own mis-management as an excuse... WPD cannot possibly do any worse.
MARSHALL MORETTA May 06, 2012 at 02:11 PM
I tend to agree - though benign neglect, not intentional - they just don't realize that they don't have the expertise. These folks are boaters, not expert harbor managers.
MARSHALL MORETTA May 06, 2012 at 02:30 PM
The WPD has a good attitude and I trust them to deal honestly with the MWRD, the WHA and to keep an open and transparent dialogue with the sailing community and the community at large. Board members and particularly their board president, sound thoughtful, intelligent and sincere. From what I hear so far, the more I lean toward a WPD lease, although I would not like revenue growth to lead their priorities. I hope that their due diligence leads them to becoming involved. I say, let the WPD pursue state, federal funds, combined with local funds. And let Wilmette residents share in these costs as they do for Centennial Park and other WPD facilities. Even for folks who do not participate in ice skating, hockey, tennis, swimming, etc. An improved Wilmette Harbor most certainly WILL reflect positively on the entire community, just as all WPD facilities do. Hopefully, the WPD and the WHA will come to some amenable understanding regarding management.
MARSHALL MORETTA May 06, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Some argue that improvements to the Wilmette Harbor will "cost Wilmette taxpayers millions of dollars". I say "OK, so what?" All governmental expenditures cost the taxpayers, whether the expenditures benefit each resident or simply make Wilmette a more desirable community in which to live. An unrelated but similar example could be that the real estate tax free status of religious property "costs the taxpayers millions of dollars". However, which of us would suggest that "our" church be taxed? Or that no churches be built, because they cost "the taxpayers millions"? Which of us would suggest that Wilmette would be better off without the Baha'i Temple?
MARSHALL MORETTA May 06, 2012 at 10:50 PM
I'm replying to my own comment above, just to illustrate my point about an improved Wilmette Harbor will reflect positively on the entire community. Check out Blair Kamin's review of the brand new 33rd Street Chicago Harbor. It is a knockout and is commensurate with the world class city in which it resides. Let the Wilmette Park District loose and let them give us something similar but on a smaller scale.

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