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Kewaunee’s controversial marina scheme

Empower Wisconsin | Sept 22, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Citizens of Kewaunee, Wis., just wanted a relatively inexpensive fix to their flooded-out public marina, a key part of the important recreational fishing industry for this Lake Michigan city of nearly 3,000 residents.

Instead, they got arrogant city officials who disregarded their wishes and worked behind the scenes on a scheme to spend millions on a project that would directly compete with the private sector.

And now the scheme could get even costlier for taxpayers.

Kewaunee City Administrator Fred Schnook and Mayor Jason Jelinek seem more interested in purchasing a nearby private marina 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 federal grant.

Alderman Jeff Vollenweider says city officials have kept citizens in the dark.

“I don’t believe leaving the council behind the curtain or out of the conversation is the right thing to do. I don’t believe leaving the pubic out of the conversation is the right thing to do,” he said.

Citizen action

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. While flooding kept visitors away, residents tell Empower Wisconsin the problem was exacerbated when city officials failed to fix much of the submerged property. They opted not to open the campground and gave long-time campers just 12 days to remove their property. Instead, city officials 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 important revenue, Vollenweider said.

Sources tell Empower Wisconsin that some businesses in and around the harbor have closed because of the city’s lack of action.

Tired of the delays, a group of citizens reached out to J. Jadin Inc., a Luxemburg, Wis.-based excavation contractor, for an estimate on a fix. The firm came back with a proposal that it says would have stopped floodwaters through the construction of a two-sided berm and boat launch approach area. The plan also called for the installation of manhole catch basins.

It was estimated to cost $35,000, according to documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin. A longer-term fix would run about $70,000.

Vollenweider and others say the project would have kept the parking lot dry, the boat launch up and running again, and the campground in action. Jadin also offered to buy back some $15,000 worth of materials once the water receded.

Schnook, the city manager, rejected the proposal out of hand. It wouldn’t work, he said. Instead city officials commissioned engineering firm Ayers and Associates to put together estimates on what they considered to be a workable plan. Schnook sent the council the proposal in late July.

The estimate checked in at a whopping $2 million. The proposal included raising the parking lot 3 feet, entirely unnecessary to get the marina fully operational again, according to multiple sources. It was a big number, they say, meant to scare taxpayers away from the long-standing city marina and focused on the shiny object next door.

Funding questions 

Shelby Johnson, Kewaunee’s former Community and Economic Development Planner, was charged with reaching out to Ayers about the marina repair bid. She’s also the grant writer for an approximately $3 million federal Economic Development Administration grant the city would use to purchase Salmon Harbor Marina.

In early July, Jelinek, the mayor, signed a purchase agreement with the private marina owners for $1.8 million. The city would use the $3 million EDA grant to purchase the marina and for upgrades, but the grant would include a sizeable match from the city — as much as $600,000. City documents note “the matching funds would need to be out of the General Fund or from a loan.” 

The Common Council ultimately voted 5-3 to approve the purchase agreement that Jelinek had brokered without council consent.

“I don’t feel that we could comfortably bring that match,” said Alder Janita Zimmerman, who voted against the agreement. And she, like Vollenweider, doesn’t think the city should tap into the Kewaunee Marina fund to help finance the purchase of Salmon Harbor. There has been dispute whether those funds are locked in or may be used for other expenditures. If so, Vollenweider said, then there really isn’t a segregated marina fund.

“I feel that money should be left for repairs and upkeep of the current marina,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t feel it should be used to purchase another marina or another property … I’m going on my fifth year on council, I was always under the understanding that that was an enterprise fund we could not touch, so I’m not sure where the discrepancy came in.”

More troubling, they say, is the mayor and council are now talking about the possibility of trying to secure a loan — if the grant doesn’t come to pass. That’s a bridge too far for some. It would expand the obligation of Kewaunee taxpayers.

Competition and loss 

Jelinek and Schnook did not return Empower Wisconsin’s multiple requests for comment. Jelinek did tell the Door County Daily News earlier this summer that the purchase of the private marina would guarantee that Kewaunee always has control of its waterfront and “that there will always be public access to that waterfront.”

But it also puts the local government in direct competition with private business. Salmon Harbor comes with a fleet of services, not the least of which are bait sales, boat repair and boat storage that Kewaunee merchants currently provide.

For now, businesses, residents, tourists and taxpayers are missing out on a city-owned marina that could be fully operational if only the mayor, the council and the city administrator made it a priority.

“If that property could be fixed for, say, $100,000, every season that goes by that the parking lot, launch and campsite are closed is lost revenue that could be used to pay that back, not to mention the loss of economic development,” Vollenweider said.

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