Liberty Grove Explores Gills Rock as Harbor of Refuge

The Gills Rock Harbor of Refuge Steering Committee is working on plans to create a marina with a historic twist on the tip of the Door Peninsula; one supporters feel could become the crown jewel of county marinas.

But with a steep price tag – early estimates range from $11 to 16 million – and questions about the prospects for a large marina miles from services and entertainment, the vision faces an uncertain future.

The project sprouted in late 2005 when several adjoining property owners expressed their willingness to sell their shoreline property to the Town of Liberty Grove to create a public park and marina and preserve the historic fishing area currently home to the Weborg family’s commercial fishing facilities.

To embark on the project the town would have to spend an estimated $3.29 million to buy the properties, then find other sources of revenue to build a safe harbor of refuge with a 50-slip marina (with the ability to expand to 100 slips in the future), four boat launches, fuel services, dock master office, and bathroom and shower facilities. Commercial fishing would be preserved at the site and several historical fishing structures preserved and enhanced, including the possible relocation of the Gill Rock branch of the Door County Maritime Museum.

The harbor’s breakwall would include a public walk with accessible fishing stations.

The plan as presently proposed would also include the purchase of property across Highway 42, some of which would be used for parking with the rest preserved as a conservation area with 1.2 miles of walking paths and recreational areas.

John Blossom III, the committee’s chairman, said the plan is set apart from existing marinas because of the historical aspects slated for inclusion.

“We’re referring to it as the Gills Rock Heritage Center,” he said. “We want it to have a historical feel, not look like a brand new marina.”

Preserving the historic buildings on the site is one way to do this, as is reserving space for commercial fishing. Blossom said he also envisions the main structure on the property, a two-story building housing the bathroom facilities, dockmaster, and museum, adding to the aesthetic.

“That could become a popular place to host weddings, reunions and any other gatherings,” he said. “This would be not just a marina but an asset to the community.”

Blossom said the committee would explore all manner of federal and state funding for the project, which could include money from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), waterways, recreational boating and stewardship grants. He said the DNR is extremely interested in the Gills Rock proposal and considers it a top priority.

While there is overwhelming support for preserving the fishing atmosphere and creating greater public access to the water in Northern Door, the plan does have its detractors. Some question the cost to the town, which will be substantial even if a great deal of money comes in the way of grants (which are ultimately funded by tax dollars as well).

Even some who support the project question whether it will draw boaters to the undeveloped village.

“There needs to be something for people to do,” said Russ Forkert, President of Yacht Works, which operates a marina in Liberty Grove just north of Sister Bay. “People won’t go there and pay for a seasonal slip just to sit on their boat and look at the water.”

Forkert said the services his company provides boaters and the adjacent restaurants at his marina are big draws, as well as the proximity to downtown Sister Bay. Gills Rock lacks businesses and support services.

“Look at Center Point Marina in Sturgeon Bay,” Forkert said. “They have a really nice marina lounge, pool, a rec center. It’s like a little community.”

Blossom agreed that such amenities are necessary to make the project a success but said he expects private entrepreneurs will fill that role.

Liberty Grove Town Chairman Bill Casey said the project is only in its infancy.

“The committee is really in the first steps of defining what they want to accomplish,” he said. “So far they’ve gathered a lot of input but haven’t specified exactly what will go in there.”

He said it was too early to predict how far the plan would go because of financial uncertainty, saying its future is “extremely dependent on funding and grants.”

At this stage, questions remain in the minds of many.

“There is a general interest in the project but people don’t know the details,” Casey said.

Blossom said involving the public is the committee’s biggest priority at the moment. A Web site has been set up at http:/ to host minutes and other information.

“We want to make the public as informed as possible,” Blossom said.

Fresh in the minds of community members and officials is the highly contentious Ellison Bay Marina expansion project, which was shot down by the public last year.

“The biggest issue in the failure of the Ellison Bay Marina was the lack of parking options,” Casey said. “In Gills Rock, it appears there would be adequate of parking for the marina and any other activities planned for the property.”

Then there are those who don’t want to see Gills Rock expand and fear what type of development will inevitably accompany the marina. Blossom said he would encourage the town to implement design standards to encourage what he called a “Leelanau feel, with coastally-inspired homes and development. It will change the look of the bay, so we’re trying to design it so it’s aesthetically blended in.”

Forkert, who was born and raised in Northern Door, said the marina could become an important economic driver in Northern Door.

“Not very many people that live in Door County are concerned about economic development anymore,” he said. “They don’t have kids in the school, they’re retired, and they don’t care. There aren’t too many ways to create economic growth up here, but marinas are one of them.”

He said Yacht Works creates 40 year-round, well-paying jobs.

JJR Consultants has been hired by the town to design the marina and will return to the committee with new plans incorporating the most recent recommendations at the end of October or in early November. If the plan is approved and subsequent steps move forward without major hurdles, Blossom estimated it would be completed in four to five years.