Governor Authorizes 500K for Potawatomi Tower

Gov. Tony Evers has authorized his administration to spend up to $500,000 to stabilize the Potawatomi State Park observation tower. The move comes after he included $6,060,000 within his capital budget to revitalize the tower with an adjoining helical ramp that will allow people with mobility impairments to access the 75-foot views. 

“With restoration of the tower now the path forward, it is clear there is a significant and imminent need to preserve and stabilize the structure,” Evers wrote in a letter to Kathy Blumenfeld, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration. 

The news was met with excitement by Sen. André Jacque (R-De Pere), who, with Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), has advocated for the tower’s repair for several years.

“It was frustrating that it took this long, but I appreciate that the governor is finally recognizing the immediate need for intervention to save the tower, and I especially applaud our local groups for their tireless advocacy of this project,” Jacque said.

That advocacy to save the tower began with the Sturgeon Bay Historical Society Foundation (SBHSF) after the Department of Natural Resources closed the tower in 2017, during the Scott Walker administration, due to worsening decay. SBHSF’s efforts included obtaining an assessment from a wood expert who said the tower could be repaired and getting the tower listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

“We’re excited that the governor allocated emergency funds to prevent further deterioration of the structure,” said Kelly Catarozoli, an SBHSF board member, “but cautious and hopeful that the stabilization plan will be conducted in a way that does not jeopardize the historical integrity of the tower.”

Evers’ action followed a letter that Jacque and Kitchens sent to Evers on March 8 requesting the governor direct the stabilization and repair of the tower using emergency-repair funding available under State Building Commission procedures.

“While your current capital budget request does include repair of the structure, the timeline it proposes would not see any stabilization of it begin until January of 2025, at which point there is a strong likelihood that the tower will already have succumbed to the elements and have fallen over,” the legislators wrote.

During the past three years, the SBHSF has successfully enjoined local organizations and municipalities to pass resolutions and letters of support to save the tower. One of those to join the fight was Nasewaupee resident Dave Allen, who started the Potawatomi Park Alliance, a voluntary coalition of citizens, organizations, business owners and residents of Door County.

“I was very pleased that the tower will hopefully not suffer permanent degradation that would have happened if the capital budget process was followed,” Allen said. “That is very important. That gives time to allow the clear, local sentiments regarding the tower to be evaluated against the governor’s capital budget goals. If the tower had fallen down, then neither goal would be achieved. So hopefully the discussion will continue, and the money will prevent further damage.”

The emergency authorization will “work to keep the tower standing,” Evers said, with bracing and jacking systems and wood-member testing and preservation. But it’s not a substitute for a permanent fix that will reopen the tower to the public. Evers made that clear in his authorization letter and in a letter to Jacque and Kitchens, in which he asked the legislators to support the $6 million tower project – particularly Jacque, who sits on the State Building Commission and has a vote on Evers’ proposed capital budget items.

“It is imperative that the capital budget project I put forward be enumerated,” Evers wrote to the legislators. “While the action resulting from the emergency Chapter 16 waiver will work to keep the tower standing, it will not do so permanently, and there is still a need for project enumeration to complete the project and open it up to all.”

The consultant SBHSF hired – Dan Tingley with Wood Research and Development – assessed the tower in 2019 and concluded it could be permanently fixed for $250,000. Allowing for cost increases and additional degradation, the SBHSF, Allen and local legislators believe the tower could be permanently fixed for $500,000, rather than simply stabilized. Kitchens told the Peninsula Pulse he was bearing that in mind when he called Evers’ authorization “a win for the tower.”

“I think it gives us a chance to save it,” Kitchens said. “I’m still being cautious about it. I don’t think we should take this as ‘It’s now going to be repaired,’ but it’s a step.”

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