Port pins its hopes on $2.2 million lighthouse grant

City applies for Department of Transportation funding that would pay 80% of cost to refurbish Port landmark

RUSTY AND LICHEN-COVERED, the Port Washington lighthouse stood out against the white of breaking waves during a storm last year. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

PORT WASHINGTON - The City of Port Washington may be a step closer to repairing its iconic lighthouse.

Last week aldermen approved applying for a grant that would pay 80% of the estimated $2.8 million cost of refurbishing the lighthouse and an agreement with  the State Department of Transportation that outlines the terms of the grant.

Typically such an agreement would be approved after a grant is awarded, but Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said that because of potentially short timelines for the grant, officials were encouraged to act on it now — something he “finds encouraging.”

“I’ve been looking for funds for our lighthouse for a couple years,” he said, and this grant is one of very few he found.

Port Washington’s lighthouse, which is a symbol of the community and a draw for tourists, has fallen into disrepair since the city took ownership of the light in 2018.

The structure requires painting, a task made difficult because it is currently covered in lead paint and remediation would be costly.

Lead paint chips can’t be allowed to fall in the water, and the city can’t just tent the 63-feet-tall structure while doing the work because the lighthouse is a navigational aid and the light needs to be exposed all the time.

And while it may seem easy to remove all the paint, prime the lighthouse and then paint it, it can’t be done that way. That’s because the moisture in the air will start corroding the metal structure quickly — so quickly that the structure can’t be left unpainted even overnight or it will begin to corrode and the paint will peel in a short time.

City officials have been looking to fund the repairs but the high cost at a time when other expensive projects are also being considered has made this a difficult task.

But rehabilitation of the Art Deco-style lighthouse has been a priority for Mayor Ted Neitzke, who has called it “an integrity issue.”

“We said we would maintain it and we haven’t,” he said last year. “I realize we don’t have a whole lot of money. But it’s covered in lichen, and it’s embarrassing.”

Neitzke expressed frustration about the issue after the proposed 2024 budget was  presented Oct. 17.

“It’s not in the budget again, and we have a liability we took on,” Neitzke said. “We said we would fund the needed improvements and we’ve never done that. I have a problem with that.

“This is a hill I will die on. The city made a commitment. It is not in the condition we promised the (federal) government we would keep it in.”

The grant the city applied for would go a long way to pay for repairs. The money would come from the DOT’s transportation alternatives program, which has a category for community improvements such as historic building preservation, Vanden Noven said, adding it’s being funded through the bipartisan infrastructure law and the federal redistribution of money other states were unable to allocate.

The DOT is supportive of the city’s application, he said, adding other agencies that would have to sign off on the grant such as the Army Corps of Engineers and Wisconsin Historical Society have already done so.

“It’s ready to go,” Vanden Noven said.

The DOT has emphasized that the city has not been awarded the grant, he said. But  the city could find out whether it will receive the grant “any day,” he added.

“I think we have at least a 50-50 shot of getting this,” Vanden Noven, adding one thing the city has going for it is the fact that the preliminary design work has been done.

“I’m excited about it,” Ald. Dan Benning said. “I’m excited because instead of $2.8 million it’s $600,000 (local share).”

Ald. John Sigwart noted that there was some fundraising done for the repairs after the city received ownership of the lighthouse and asked if that had been used already.

About $40,000 was raised, Neitzke said, and it is being held in a separate account by the Friends of Port Washington Parks and Recreation.

Vanden Noven said the DOT warned that the city could receive less than the 80% funding, but added that any funding is welcome.

If approved, the city would send the project out for bids in fall with the work to be done in 2025, Vanden Noven said, so the city’s share could be included in that year’s budget.

Benning asked if the city is committing to the lighthouse work by approving the application and agreement.

“The council hasn’t set this as a priority project,” he noted.

If the grant is approved by the state, Vanden Noven said, aldermen would still need to act to accept it.

Aldermen are expected to meet to discuss prioritizing future projects as part of a “work session” to be held on June 4.

Port Washington’s lighthouse, which was built in 1935, is one of eight structures built from the same plans between 1935 and 1950.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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