Agency that has given Port little reason for optimism now says it will make structure sound, safe for pedestrians
Port Washington officials on Tuesday were shocked to learn that the Army Corps of Engineers will spend almost $1 million on basic repairs to stabilize and cap the north breakwater this summer.
“This is phenomenal news,” Ald. Dan Becker said. “It’s a 180 from where we were. It’s a great first step for us.”
Mayor Tom Mlada said the planned repairs fall short of the complete reconstruction of the breakwater that’s needed, but they are a huge step forward for the city.
“The news is exciting because it’s immediate,” he said. “It (the breakwater) will be stable, and it’ll be safe. It will be a safer pedestrian walkway, a safer place for recreational fishing. It will mean better access to the lighthouse.
“But this is not all the work it needs. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball for the long-term solution.”
The news that the Army Corps, which has been telling the city for months that it had no money to repair the crumbling breakwater, found $950,000 in uncommitted funding for 2014 to spend on the Port Washington project was announced Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Tom Petri.
“This is one of those end-of-the-day surprises that wound up being great news for Port Washington,” Petri said following a meeting with Army Corps representatives in Washington, D.C. “This is great, great news.”
The representatives told him that they had just tallied their final budget numbers and had funding for a few additional projects, including the Port breakwater.
Not only were funds available, but the Corps will be working on other projects nearby and can mobilize those resources for the Port project.
“They were very aware of the danger and the needs here,” said Petri, a longtime member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure who has been active in trying to get funding for the project.
He credited city officials with raising the awareness, saying a letter-writing campaign spearheaded by officials and Mlada’s November trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby legislators and Corps officials had a significant effect.
“They wouldn’t have known about it if we hadn’t brought it to their attention,” Petri said. “This is a small harbor in a small Midwestern town.
“Now, this is something that’s on their radar. I think it’s a tribute to the efforts of the city fathers.”
Also helpful were the city’s efforts to get both Democratic and Republican legislators behind the project, Petri said.
Mlada and other officials lauded Petri for his efforts in obtaining the funding, saying his work paved the way for the project.
Petri acknowledged that the work won’t give the city everything it needs in terms of repairing the breakwater, noting that the cost of a complete repair is between $16 million and $17 million.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly better than nothing,” he said. “It’s a sign of progress, and it’s happening faster than we thought.
“This is not the end of the process. It’s a positive beginning.”
An Army Corps inspection conducted last summer concluded that almost the entire eastern half of Port Washington’s north breakwater is structurally unsound and dangerous and should be rebuilt as soon as possible.
“In some sections, it seems as if the next big storm may wash the structure away,” the report reads. “Therefore, it is recommended that a major rehabilitation be performed along the entire reach as soon as funds become available.”
According to the report, a large portion of the breakwater has failed, another segment is in very poor condition and a smaller area is in poor condition.
Only a small segment of the breakwater near shore is listed in good condition, needing only minor maintenance work, according to the report.
While they are owned by the federal government, both the breakwater and the Art Deco-style lighthouse are symbols of the city. Not only does the breakwater protect the harbor and marina from powerful lake waves, it is also a major attraction for residents and tourists alike.
But the deteriorating condition of the breakwater has had officials concerned for years, and until now their efforts to get the Army Corps to repair the structure have been largely unsuccessful.
Those efforts took on new urgency after the Corps conducted the breakwater assessment last summer.
Officials have talked of creating a breakwater taskforce, and a citizens group, the Great Lakes Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation, formed to aid in the effort.
The city has also hired a consultant to help find funding for the breakwater repairs, since Mlada was told when he visited Washington, D.C., that the community would be expected to provide some financing for the work.
A financing summit held last week brought together the consultants, city officials and various agencies that could provide funding. It also gave the city a chance to sell them on the project and the need for it, Mlada said Tuesday.
“It was a very, very successful day,” he told the Common Council Tuesday, adding it gave officials a clearer picture of funds that might be available and ways to use those funds most effectively.
Some of the money the city is putting into current projects, such as the reconstruction of the parking lot behind Duluth Trading Co., can be used as a match for grant funds, Mlada noted.
Foth Infrastructure & Environmental and SmithGroup JJR, the city’s consultants, will now create a “road map” of options for funding and prioritize them, Mlada said. They will also start applying for the most desirable grants.
With the Corps conducting basic repairs this year, the city will have enough time to get funding in place and work with federal officials on a long-term solution, officials said.
“This buys us the time we need,” Ald. Mike Ehrlich said. “It’s great news.”
Ald. Kevin Rudser called this summer’s project a stopgap solution, noting it will extend the life of the breakwater by fewer than 10 years.
“Considering we were late to the table, to get $1 million is a huge accomplishment,” he said. “But it doesn’t stop now. There’s still a lot of money to be raised. We’ve got to keep pushing toward that.”
Citizens’ efforts will continue to be important, Mlada added.
“Work toward the long-term solution is starting,” he said Tuesday. “Keep making the calls. Keep sending e-mails. Keep writing letters.”