Cana Island Represents Best of Public-Private Partnership

The Door County Board of supervisors got a brief history lesson on the county’s relationship with the Cana Island Lighthouse at its monthly meeting on May 24.

Door County Maritime Museum Executive Director Amy Paul teamed up with Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas and Door County Parks Department head Erik Aleson to present the story of what has become a major attraction, drawing about 38,000 visitors annually.

Paul explained that the lighthouse was built in 1883 to replace the Baileys Harbor range lights. During World War II it was used by the Coast Guard for training. In 1970 the Maritime Museum was given control of the island.

Thomas said that when he joined the county in June 1997, then-Parks Director George Pinney had an inkling that the whole island might be put up for disposition as surplus property because the Coast Guard no longer used it. The island was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management, but the museum had practical control of it. In 1998 the county board adopted a resolution giving permission to the parks director to obtain the island and lighthouse, and in October 2001 another resolution authorized the county’s acquisition of the island.


Former County Board Supervisor Leo Zipperer (center) was recognized at the May 24 county board meeting for his 28 years of service on the board. Looking on are county board chair Dave Lienau (left) and Linda Wait, who was elected in April to replace Zipperer. Photo by Jim Lundstrom.

Former County Board Supervisor Leo Zipperer (center) was recognized at the May 24 county board meeting for his 28 years of service on the board. Looking on are county board chair Dave Lienau (left) and Linda Wait, who was elected in April to replace Zipperer. Photo by Jim Lundstrom.

But a group of property owners were against the acquisition, so for the next five years, Thomas said, “We litigated this case in every way you can imagine.”

Finally, on May 18, 2006, the land conveyance was granted to the county.

As the new owner, in 2007 the county put out a request for proposals for an entity to run the island with three goals in mind – development, rehabilitation and operation. The Door County Maritime Museum put in the winning proposal that is good through Dec. 21, 2021.

“This is a unique and very good example of a public-private partnership,” Thomas said, adding that one of the most significant accomplishments of his tenure to date was getting legal possession of the island and giving stewardship to the museum.

“It’s safe to say they’ve done a wonderful job,” he said. He also thanked Baileys Harbor resident Roy Thilly, who lives next to the property and was instrumental in improving relations between landowners and the county.

Aleson outlined the ongoing restoration project that began in 2012. Phase 1 included replacing three pit toilets with a modern restroom facility and maintenance building ($300,000); land acquisition and parking lot construction ($1.5 million); research on a cultural landscape report to restore the gardens, trees, stone walls and an archway to the historic period of 1918-1939 ($10,000); and restoration of the entire exterior of the light tower and keeper’s dwelling ($984,000).

The board approved a transfer of $35,000 from its Cana Island Reserve Fund to complete Phase 1. Phase 2, to begin this year, will focus on restoration of three outbuildings – oil house, privy and barn – at a cost of $220,000. Phase 3, scheduled for 2017, will create a separate welcome center and gift shop in order to remove those from the lighthouse museum, at a cost of $250,000; and Phase 4 scheduled for 2018 will restore the interior of the keeper’s house ($800,000), and 2019 will be a celebration of Cana Island’s 150 years of service.

In other matters:

  • Recently retired County Board Supervisor Leo Zipperer received a standing ovation at a brief ceremony recognizing his 28 years on the board. Zipperer served on the board three separate times, beginning in 1974. During those 28 years, Zipperer served half of that time as board chair.

Three other supervisors were also recognized for their service, including Charles Brann, who was elected to the board two years after retiring as Door County sheriff in 2002; John Bur, who served a two-year term on the board and continues to serve as chair of the Town of Union; and Paul Kok, who filled in the remaining 11 months of former Supervisor Tim O’Connor.

  • Rod Dequaine, head of the county’s Child Support Department, received on behalf of his department a 2015 Excellence Award from the state.
  • County Administrator Ken Pabich outlined a budget model that he believes will help the various departments in steering the county’s future budgets.
  • Soil and Water Conservation Department head Bill Schuster, who has also led the Sister City program with Jingdezhen, China, announced that a delegation from the Sister City is coming to Door County for three days beginning June 12. He said they will focus on two things: bringing more seasonal workers to Door County from Jingdezhen and developing a tourism package for Jingdezhen visitors that begins in Chicago but includes a couple of days in Door County.
  • As a show of good faith to the towns of Brussels, Gardener and Union, the board transferred $800,000 from its unassigned fund balance for a new ambulance station in southern Door. Pabich explained that one of the towns would not move forward on the project unless the county showed its money. He said the board may determine at a later time to include the $800,000 in bonding for the rehabilitation of the old highway shop in Sturgeon Bay, which is being turned into EMS headquarters and senior center.
  • Approved a Rustic Road designation for a portion of County W in the Town of Washington. For more information on Rustic Roads, click here.

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