When the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate gaveled in and out without any action on Gov. Tony Evers’ special session Tuesday, the $5 million question for those who support the historical repair of the Potawatomi State Park observation tower was whether the tower had become another political chip in the partisan world of Wisconsin politics.
Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) and Sen. André Jacque (R-De Pere) said they heard directly from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary Preston Cole that the DNR was no longer considering demolition of the tower and was instead moving in the direction that Evers backed in his now-defunct special-session legislation.
That May 25 meeting, which also included Christie Weber, president of the Sturgeon Bay Historical Society Foundation (SBHSF), had been scheduled before Evers signed his executive order on the same day calling for a special session of the Wisconsin State Legislature to expand BadgerCare and invest the $1.6 billion in cost savings realized under the American Rescue Plan Act into Wisconsin’s economic recovery.
Included in the more than 50 projects and economic-development initiatives across the state that were listed in that special-session bill was $5 million for historical renovation and ADA-accessible access to the Potawatomi State Park observation tower in Door County.
When Kitchens learned of the executive order and the tower’s appearance among the governor’s projects, he headed into the meeting with the DNR secretary with a healthy amount of skepticism. He knew the Republican majorities in both the Assembly and Senate wouldn’t convene in any meaningful way for the Democratic governor’s special session. He said he expressed his skepticism at the outset of the meeting and was assured the DNR would proceed with repair, regardless of the outcome of the special-session legislation.
“They absolutely did say it was not tied to that,” Kitchens said.
The assurance from Cole assuaged Kitchens’ skepticism. Weber, too, walked away from the meeting optimistic that the tower would now be repaired, as did Jacque.
“It appears pretty evident that the administration’s position has moved from recommending demolition to supporting and funding repair and looking at additional [ADA accessibility] accommodations,” Jacque said.
When the Peninsula Pulse asked the DNR for confirmation that the tower would be repaired rather than demolished, Sarah Hoye, communications director for the Wisconsin DNR, said via email that the department would “closely monitor the legislature’s actions on the special-session bill in order to assess next steps relative to this project.”
After Republicans in both the Assembly and Senate gaveled out of the special session Tuesday without consideration or deliberation, Evers tweeted his frustration, accusing Republicans of not wanting to “invest $1 billion into our state’s economy and support communities in their own districts.”
Kitchens said the legislature does not vote or make decisions on the floor, but rather, it works things out at the committee level after holding hearings and taking testimony. The fact that Evers is accusing Republicans of not engaging in a process that doesn’t exist is disingenuous and in itself a political game, Kitchens said.
And now, it appears the tower may have fallen victim to that game.
The Pulse followed up with Hoye to learn what the DNR’s position is now that the special-session legislation failed. She did not respond prior to the deadline.
Kitchens, Jacque and Weber, based on their meeting with the person who holds the highest position in the DNR, are remaining optimistic that Cole will keep his word. The next step is to get the project before the State Building Commission, which the governor chairs, and which is responsible for the development and oversight of the state’s building program.
Jacque, who is a member of that commission, said he’s already advanced direction to the Department of Administration (DOA) by submitting the SBHSF plans created during an assessment a couple of years ago. Those plans were authorized recently by a Wisconsin-licensed engineer, reviewed by the DNR and are “sufficient for them [DOA] to be able to go through whatever estimates they have for prebidding a project,” Jacque said. He’s also asked the DOA to draw up cost estimates.
The estimated cost of the repair, without ADA accessibility, was roughly $250,000 when the SBHSF had its assessment done almost two years ago. Evers’ $5 million for repair and ADA accessibility didn’t faze Jacque, who called it a “nice round number.”
“It’s a commitment,” Jacque said. “It’s showing the governor is going to support a significant cost of an enhancement and restoring the existing structure.
“I’m extremely pleased because this is not at all the direction we were headed,” Jacque added. “To have the administration on board on this is, I think, great for something that has very broad support in my district.”
That broad support has not been lost on the DNR, Kitchens said, and likely played a role in persuading the DNR to save the structure. The Door County Board of Supervisors, Sturgeon Bay Common Council, Town of Nasewaupee (where the park is located) and the Door County Historical Society have all adopted resolutions and/or written letters of support for the tower’s historical restoration.
“I definitely don’t think right now that they have any intention of demolishing it,” Kitchens said.