Though an anonymous donor pledged $1.25 million to save the historic Teweles and Brandeis Grain Elevator on Sturgeon Bay’s west side Oct. 26, the city has not had any serious discussion about accepting that offer, according to Mayor Thad Birmingham.
The Mayor was asked why the city has been reluctant to consider the option after Friday’s special common council meeting.
“I don’t know what funds you’re talking about,” Birmingham said. “The funds weren’t to the city. I don’t think that’s been deposited in any city fund.”
Birmingham then echoed sentiments expressed separately by aldermen Stewart Fett and David Ward, and by Ron Vandertie in council deliberations, that the pledge comes with too many strings attached.
Birmingham said the city would get the money “if we do a bunch of things.” When asked what those things are, he said: “I have no idea.”
None of the alderman who have mentioned the constraints of the donation, or the mayor, were able to detail what those alleged strings are. The donor is working with the Door County Community Foundation to facilitate the donation. Foundation President Bret Bicoy sent the letter to the city notifying them of the pledge, and on Thursday he said the pledge is remarkably simple. The only stipulations for the funds are that the Granary be restored at its present location, and that the city and Sturgeon Bay Historical Society come to an agreement on a vision for the structure.
“What’s remarkable about this family’s commitment is that they don’t have a particular use of the building in mind,” Bicoy said. “All they are asking for, is that the city of Sturgeon Bay and the Sturgeon Bay Historical Society find a common pathway forward for the good of our entire community. If they can envision such a common future, the family is prepared to contribute up to $1.25 million.”
Brimingham said that is not specific enough for him to bring to the city for consideration.
“Can you be any more open-ended than that?” he said. “You really think we’re going to get together and engage in something in that and agree to that.”
Two additional donors have come forward at city council meetings to pledge an additional $110,000 in private funds for Granary restoration.
Birmingham then referenced the council’s vote in August to give a window through Jan. 1 for any group to come forward with a plan for the Granary.
“Nobody has come forward with even a preliminary proposal,” he said.
But the Sturgeon Bay Historical Society submitted a letter of intent to the city Nov. 21, and has twice requested that the mayor put their presentation on the common council agenda. In a public comment session in August, local musician Hans Christian unveiled draft renderings of a Center for the Arts that would include the Miller Art Museum and Third Avenue Playhouse. Representatives from both organizations have spoken in support of that proposal in public comment sessions.
George Evenson, Door County’s official historian, has also spoken passionately in support of preserving the Granary.
The Mayor admitted that the historical society asked him to be placed on the agenda, but that he denied the request because it must go before the Waterfront Redevelopment Authority (WRA) first.
That does not mesh with the opinion the city received from its own attorney, Randy Nesbitt, who advised the city in a written response Nov. 3 that the WRA had no authority over the Granary, and that decisions regarding the parcel should go through city channels.
Laurel Hauser, the alderperson who asked the mayor to add the presentation to the agenda, said the mayor never instructed her to take it to the WRA.
The mayor’s comments came after yet another special meeting to select a bid to raze the Granary failed to get a quorum. Alderpersons Barbara Allmann, Kelly Catarozoli and Hauser were all absent from the meeting, as they were Monday and Wednesday. All three informed the city that they were unable to attend each of the meetings before it was held, Birmingham said, but the meetings were scheduled anyway.
“The reason we’re having these meetings is we’re under a direct, lawful order from the fire chief,” Birmingham said. “The council has taken a vote to comply with that, and as a result, we need to do everything we can to follow through with the council’s vote. What we don’t want is for the DSPS to get the impression that the city does not want to comply with the order.”
The DSPS is the Department of Safety and Professional Services, which has jurisdiction over the raze order issued by Fire Chief Tim Dietman Oct. 17. Proponents of dismantling the Granary have repeatedly mentioned the fear of being fined by DSPS for failure to comply with the order, but no city officials have said what that fine would be. DSPS did not respond to multiple requests for clarification on possible fines.
The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) weighed in on the matter Thursday, requesting information from the city to detail how it determined that the Granary is not structurally sound. The building was placed on the Wisconsin Registry of Historic Places in August.
The letter from Andrew Stern, Compliance Officer with the WHS, instructs the city to enter into negotiation with the organization to minimize adverse effect to the “historically significant granary building from its demolition or deconstruction” in accordance with Wisconsin Statute 44.42 (2).
“We must determine whether the Grain Elevator must be demolished or dismantled, or if other options exist,” the letter continues. It referenced previous reports that indicate the structure is sound for rehabilitation and reuse, and requests all information used by Dietman to determine the building must be razed.
Birmingham questioned whether WHS has standing to delay city action, and said the city would be getting a legal opinion on the letter.
“What I will say is that it’s unfortunate that it has taken as long as it has for them to weigh in on this,” he said.
The Common Council will meet in regular session Tuesday, Dec. 19 at noon. The agenda includes consideration of awarding a contract to raze the Granary. It does not include any consideration of Sturgeon Bay Historical Society’s proposal to rehabilitate the Granary, or consideration of the $1.36 million publicly pledged for that effort.
If the council members vote to award a bid to tear down the Granary, they will do so at a cost of at least $66,000 to the city, without ever considering gifts of nearly $1.4 million to the city.