Political shell game blocks repair of tower
Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) introduced a bill that would fund repairs to the observation tower at Potawatomi State Park.
LRG-4689 would ask the governor to use up to $ 750,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds to restore the historic structure. The Kitchens introduced the bill on Monday, with Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) and Sen. André Jacque (R-De Pere) as the first and second heads of the Senate.
“We are proposing this legislation because we would like to move the process forward as quickly as possible,” Kitchens wrote in a memorandum to all lawmakers in an attempt to seek co-sponsors. “Many local experts fear that if we don’t start repairing the tower very soon, additional rot and decay will make it impossible to save it. “
The money is believed to come from the $ 3.2 billion in federal funding allocated to Wisconsin under President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act. Governor Evers controls how this money is spent. To date, it has allocated $ 892.6 million, according to a July 21 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to all lawmakers in Wisconsin.
About $ 142.6 million of that amount went to a category called Tourism and Entertainment Industries, with allocations going to accommodation grants, destination marketing organizations, small live event businesses, movie theaters, live entertainment venues, summer camps, tourism marketing support, underage-league sports teams and the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“The use of ARPA funds for this project is ideal since the governor has already allocated a portion of these dollars to boost the state’s tourism industry,” Kitchens said.
The tower has been listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places over the past year, particularly because of its historical association with outdoor recreation in Door County, as well as its architectural significance. : Built in 1931, it was the first tower built in a Wisconsin state park specifically as a tourist attraction. Since then, the iconic attraction has drawn many visitors to the park.
Kitchens also asked the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to provide its long-term plan for the property, as required by Wisconsin Law 44.41 for all properties listed on the state registry. This law indicates that the plan “must, to the greatest extent possible, lead to the preservation of this property”.
The plan is under development, according to MNR’s response to Kitchens. The tower has been permanently closed since the spring of 2018 following the discovery of degradation by the MRN. The agency announced in early 2020 that it would demolish the structure as it could not be repaired without providing ADA accessibility, and provided that was impractical. This claim has since been refuted.
The demolition plan came after the Sturgeon Bay Historical Society Foundation (SHSF) hired senior engineer and wood technologist Dan Tingley, PhD. He determined that repairing the structure’s most deteriorated western red cedar lumber was possible for approximately $ 250,000.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) evaluated Tingley’s report in January 2020. It validated Tingley’s repair but listed other repairs needed, such as replacing stairs and railings. Tingley said these were maintenance items and had nothing to do with preserving the structural integrity of the tower, but the DNR did not change their position.
Then, in May, Governor Tony Evers set aside $ 5 million for the historic ADA renovation and accessibility of the tower in a legislative package that had one condition: if the legislature met in special session to talk about the expansion. Medicaid, tower repair, and other projects around the state would be funded.
The Republican-controlled legislature, long opposed to the expansion of Medicaid, caved in without taking any action. In the same week in May, MNR Secretary Preston Cole met with Kitchens, Jacque and two residents of Sturgeon Bay: Christie Weber, chair of the SBHSF board of directors; and Kelli Catarozoli, treasurer of SBHSF. According to the four, Cole said the DNR decided to repair the tower rather than demolish it and that its decision did not depend on the governor’s legislation on the Medicaid expansion.
“I put my skepticism aside and moved forward in good faith” from this meeting, Kitchens said in an email to Sean Kennedy, legislative liaison with the DNR. “Your team expressed no concerns about Dr Tingley’s plans, other than that you thought it would cost more than his estimate.”
Jacque, Catarozoli, and Weber all confirm hearing the same thing from DNR secretary Cole. The DNR never publicly confirmed what it said at that meeting and did not respond to questions posed by the Pulse Peninsula.
“They understood the urgency of the repair, and from that conversation was born a plan of action,” said Catarozoli.
That plan of action involved Jacque getting the green light for the project from the State Building Commission, the state agency that must approve all construction projects that cost more than $ 300,000. Jacque, who is a member of the commission, told the Impulse in May that he had done what it took to get the project on the agenda.
Then came the announcement in August that of the $ 92 million in projects the commission had approved, the tower was not one of them. The DOA hadn’t even put the tower on the agenda.
In an email string received by the Impulse, Bill Cosh, political adviser to Jacque’s office, asked where the deadlock between the DOA and the DNR was and asked the governor’s office to intervene.
“When André spoke with [the DOA], he was told that the DOA was waiting for the DNR to do something to start this project, ”Cosh wrote. “When I spoke with [the DNR], I was told that the DNR thought the DOA had everything it needed. What’s going on?”
“As we discussed during our meeting with Senator Jacque and Rep. Kitchens, and as I pointed out again in our last conversation, MNR does not believe that the documents you provided are competitive and that they do not address the structural issues described in the previous DOA. study, ”said Kennedy of the DNR via email. His response elicited a strong reaction from Kitchens, who replied that the “blame” was running out.
“The DNR made a commitment to repair the tower and, after reviewing Dr. Tingley’s report, finally agreed that the repair was possible,” Kitchens wrote. He continued that the DNR “is the administrator of a historic structure that belongs to the people of Wisconsin. You admitted that it can be fixed, so do it. If this tower is left to rot to the point where repair is no longer possible, the administration bears full responsibility.
Late Tuesday, Jacque’s communications director Matthew Tompach received a response from the DOA which he shared with the Impulse.
“There is still work to be done on this project to come to a consensus to come up with a competitive project proposal before the DOA can move forward with anything,” Carly wrote. Michiels, DOA Legislative Advisor.
Neither the DNR nor the governor’s office responded to requests from the Impulse for this story.
The deadline for co-sponsorship of the Kitchens Bill is Friday, September 17. ImpulseBy Wednesday’s deadline, four lawmakers had signed the bill.
Tompach said on Wednesday that he and the Kitchens office were planning a meeting with the governor’s office.