By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers has more than $5 billion at his disposal to spend on any number of COVID-19-related relief efforts, yet he can’t seem to find a fraction of that windfall to re-open the storied historical sites his administration ordered shut down last fall.
The Democrat wouldn’t even listen to the pleas of his own Wisconsin Council on Tourism, including acting Department of Tourism Secretary Ann Sayers. The council in late April voted to send Evers a letter requesting the use of federal funds to re-open and staff historic sites such as Wisconsin’s First Capitol in Belmont and the Reed School in Neilsville. Evers’ Department of Administration determined the council did not properly post the meeting at which the potentially embarrassing public letter to the governor was approved, so no official action was taken.
Now a bill co-authored by State Reps. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) and Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City), and Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), among others, would make re-opening all of Wisconsin’s historical sites this year a top priority.
COVID-19 is no longer the problem. Everything is opening back up. The governor is the problem.
“He has yet to give them any federal dollars, which is getting increasingly frustrating because the money is available,” the lawmaker said. “At first his office said it was waiting for guidance, even though they have already made some financial commitments. Now the guidance is out.
“It’s a simple problem to fix, but for whatever reason we can’t get him to move,” Tranel added.
That’s a common theme. Evers, who has near-unilateral control over the federal pandemic relief funding, has been short on specifics about his plans for the billions. Tranel and his legislative colleagues say Evers and his staff refuse to talk to Republicans.
The Wisconsin Historical Society faces a budget shortfall of about $2.4 million, a direct result of the loss of program revenue in 2020 because of pandemic-related shutdowns, according to memo seeking co-sponsorship of the bill.
It’s an issue bigger than history. The eight historic sites, including Prairie du Chien’s Villa Louis, are iconic symbols of Badger State communities and they are “huge economic drivers” for the small towns they populate, Tranel said.
Robert Moses, president and CEO of the Prairie du Chien Chamber of Commerce, told the Wisconsin State Journal last fall that the closures came with little communication. Villa Louis, a restored Victorian estate, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
“I was extremely disappointed and a little frustrated in not being able to have a conversation (with the WHS) about Villa Louis and what it means to our community,” Moses told the newspaper. “I understand budgets and I understand everyone is in a pinch but I think they could have waited until early 2021 until they made such a decision.”
For now, the sites remain idle and empty.
More galling is the fact that more the 30 Historical Society employees have been helping out critical state agencies in need, such as the Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Health Services. As the health emergency has dramatically abated, Tranel says Historical Society employees and the communities in which they work are wondering why the historic sites remain closed.
“Some people in the general public might think this is COVID-related, but it’s not a safety concern or something like that,” Tranel said. “They need the money to hire employees and open the site back up.”
And “they” — the governor — has the money to do just that. Billions of dollars in federal aid.
For now, this is the message you’ll find when clicking on to the Villa Louis website:
“Villa Louis remains closed for public programming as many of our team members continue to help the state of Wisconsin’s frontline efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for the most up-to-date information.”