Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 22, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Randy Vandenack’s Port O’ Call restaurant is literally on the water in downtown Kewaunee.
He’s been serving customers great food and an award-winning view of the Kewaunee Harbor for 20 years. The restaurant has survived recession, natural disasters, even a pandemic — so far.
But Vandenack says his business has taken a big hit from the city’s refusal to repair the Kewaunee marina’s boat launch and parking lot, idled for two seasons of boating — the lifeblood of this Lake Michigan city of nearly 3,000 residents.
The restauranteur estimates his sales plummeted $3,000 a week during the 2019 summer season.
“It’s a pretty significant number, especially since we make hay in the summer,” Vandenack said.
“When they closed the boat launch, that’s a huge (tourism) traffic issue for the city as far as people going through town. All those people pulling boats and trucks need supplies and gas and food and places to stay,” he added.
Some business owners who spoke to Empower Wisconsin said Mother Nature battered this sport fishing community in spring 2019, but Kewaunee officials who refused to listen to plans to fix the city-owned marina have made matters worse.
Last year, torrential spring rains flooded the Kewaunee Marina parking lot and campground, as well as the boat launch, located on the other side of Wisconsin Highway 42. City officials opted not to open the campground and gave long-time campers just 12 days to remove their property. Instead, they focused on a federal grant that would help finance the purchase of privately owned Salmon Harbor Marina.
That left campground space closed and many of the city’s 100 marina slips empty, costing Kewaunee important revenue.
Dennis Shimanek, owner of Harbor Express, a Kewaunee convenience store, said his business saw a sizeable decrease in income. In the 2019 boating season, he estimates lost earnings at nearly $28,000. He estimates gasoline sales were off by nearly 76,000 gallons over the period.
“When they closed the boat launch permanently for the rest of the year, tourism wasn’t what it used to be,” Shimanek said. He said Salmon Harbor took in some of the boaters that had slips at the city marina, offsetting a portion of the steep losses.
Shimanek and Vandenack said estimates have been harder to calculate this boating season because the pandemic has skewed everything.
Some residents told Empower Wisconsin last month that Kewaunee City Administrator Fred Schnook and other city officials refused to listen to a proposal that they say would have fixed the boat launch and parking lot for $35,000.
Schnook and Mayor Jason Jelinek seem more interested in purchasing the nearby private marina — at a cost of $1.8 million — than they are about fixing the city’s marina property. Without the Common Council’s knowledge, the mayor unilaterally signed a purchase agreement, contingent on council approval and the securing of a $3 million federal grant.
Schnook did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment. He and Jelinek have not returned any of Empower Wisconsin’s multiple requests for comment.
Willard Kickbusch, a long-time Kewaunee resident and former county board supervisor, said he reached out to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year and was told the city would not need any state or federal regulatory approvals to fix the boat launch.
“No DNR permits are needed to raise the ramp,” Kathleen Kramasz, DNR Water Regulation/Zoning specialist, wrote in a reply to Kickbusch.
He said he approached the city administrator about the plan to fix the boat launch.
“What he told me was, ‘I’m not going to put one Goddamn dollar into that marina at the present time,” Kickbusch said.
The 91-year-old has lived in Kewaunee his entire life.
“The city of Kewaunee lost a lot of money last year that it didn’t have to,” he said.
Vandenack said if he wasn’t an established restaurant operator, if he had a mortgage to pay, he doesn’t know if he could make it. The ripple effects of the idle marina are being felt throughout the entire community, he said.
“It impacts my employees. Less hours means less money. It impacts my vendors. I try to keep a real nice building and update it, I can’t update it when I don’t have the money,” the restaurant owner said.
Shimanek said the city is trying to put a long-term plan together to right the problems of the flooded marina. He said some citizens have stepped forward to come up with solutions, but there’s no denying the negative impact the loss of the boat launch and the campsite have had on the local economy.
“We rely on local traffic, being a gas station. I can see long-term, if things don’t change, the smaller businesses, the mom and pop shops (will go out of business)… We will become a dying town in the future.”