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!