Concerns mount as breakwater, lighthouse projects stall

Port aldermen say they’re worried that lakefront initiatives are taking a back seat to other capital needs

Although significant improvements have been made to the Port Washington breakwater, and money has been raised to restore the lighthouse, progress on both fronts has stalled. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Two City of Port Washington waterfront initiatives — the repair and improvement of the north breakwater and the renovation of the landmark lighthouse — have stalled,  and that has several aldermen worried.

“It’s concerning to me,” Ald. Paul Neumyer said. “In my humble opinion, it’s very important to the city. They (the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the breakwater) said that structure could fail. That would have serious consequences.”

Ald. Dan Benning said, “There was a lot of good momentum. I’d like to see it come to completion.

“I don’t think it’s going to come apart tomorrow or this month or this year, but we saw last winter what the water can do.” 

One of the main reasons the initiative has faltered, Neumyer said, is that former Mayor Tom Mlada, who championed both projects, is no longer in office.

“Since Tom left, the lighthouse and breakwater have fallen off the radar,” Neumyer said. 

Mlada successfully lobbied for federal funds for the breakwater, and during his administration the city received grants for repairs and improvements.

“He (Mlada) was our point man with the Corps,” Nuemyer said. “We wouldn’t have had that first $1 million to fix the breakwater if he hadn’t gone to Washington, D.C., and pounded on doors.”

Mlada also helped develop the city’s partnership with Discovery World to bring the tall ship Denis Sullivan to Port several times a summer, a move that resulted in the city’s harbor once again being designated a commercial port and opening up grant opportunities, he said.

“We have to keep that going,” Neumyer said.

City Administrator Mark Grams said the city is facing a tight budget year in which it may be difficult to fund these efforts.

“There are other initiatives that have higher priority,” Grams said.

That was reiterated by Benning, a member of the city’s Finance and License Committee.

“It’s a balancing act between all the needs and the limited funds,” he said. 

Mayor Marty Becker said that while the breakwater and lighthouse are important, the Aug. 27 flooding that caused significant property damage in the city and efforts to mitigate future problems have taken center stage.

“The flood damage and what we have to do to fix that is probably more important right now,” Becker said. “We have to look at the big picture and prioritize. I don’t want to be the bad guy, but I think the safety of residents does take precedence.”

For that same reason, he said, the idea of a west-side firehouse may take priority in the near future. The fire station is a cause that was championed by the Police and Fire Commission several years ago, when Becker was a member.  

But even as the city works to find funds for the lighthouse and breakwater initiatives, there have been setbacks to both projects.

The city’s most recent grant application for repairs to the east end of the breakwater was turned down.

And much of the work that went into obtaining the lighthouse from the federal government and raising money to restore it was done by a volunteer group that seems to have disbanded.

“It was basically its own separate group,” Grams said of the lighthouse committee.

“Nobody has really stepped forward,” he said. 

Fundraising for the most basic lighthouse repair — replacement of the leaking and broken porthole windows — has stagnated,  even as the structure has been named to the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places.

Mayor Marty Becker said he hopes the fact the lighthouse is on the state register and its application to the National Register of Historic Places is pending will open up additional grant funds.

The city has raised about $20,000 for the lighthouse repairs through donations, sales of a lighthouse ornament created by local artist John Reichert and the inaugural Frosty Lighthouse Five run-walk.

Short-term repairs to the lighthouse are estimated to cost $30,000, including $25,000 for replacement of the porthole windows, while long-term repairs include repainting the lighthouse at a cost of between $500,000 and $1 million.

Although breakwater repairs were dealt a blow when the city’s application for a boating infrastructure grant was turned down, Grams said there is still one outstanding grant application.

The  city has a $550,000 grant in hand for the project, he added. 

“But it requires matching funds, and the cost for the work is triple that amount,” he said.

Grams said the city may include the matching funds in a borrowing next year, adding he will see how much work can be done to the east end of the breakwater with those funds.

The city has made significant improvements to the breakwater since work began in 2014, when the Army Corps of Engineers laid additional armor stone to protect the deteriorating structure. In addition, the cap has also been replaced along much of the breakwater and the entrance of the structure has been improved with amenities that include a wider, handicapped accessible walkway and a fishing platform.

“The armor stone was a big deal,” Neumyer said. “It’s protected it (the breakwater) from a lot of the wave action we’ve had.”

 But more needs to be done, he added, especially since the city has taken on ownership of the lighthouse.

“As (former alderman) Dave Larson said, ‘It’ll all be for naught if the breakwater fails.’” Neumyer said.

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