At the listening session at the Old Gibraltar Town Hall on Jan. 25, Senator Frank Lasee discussed his proposed bill to provide funding for the repair of Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park. But any hopes of the tower being open by May are futile, according to estimates from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
All signs point to the reconstruction of the tower and not repairing the current structure.
“The department has taken a conservative approach, there’s no doubt about it,” said Jerry Leiterman of the DNR in response to questions about the maximum loading capacity of the tower. “People felt that this is a very important project so we’re trying to streamline.”
Lasee’s bill, now circulating in the legislature, calls for up to $300,000 from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund to go toward the repair of the tower. The bill requires DNR to report to state committees on its plan for the tower by March 1 and have the tower open and accessible by May 27, just before Memorial Day weekend.
But both options that the DNR is reviewing put a timeline of 18 months after approval.
“I think you could repair it,” said Lasee. “It feels like the DNR has already decided that they want to close it down.”
Lasee questioned the validity of both studies brought forth by the DNR, saying that the DNR had already made a determination to take the tower down and it passed that idea to the reporting engineers, influencing their results. “Usually the payer gets the results that they ask for,” said Lasee, calling for another engineering study done independently and without seeing the original study or its peer review.
Leiterman said their determination to continue using the load-carrying capacity from the first inspection was reinforced by an inspection of the wood at the tower on Jan. 21 by Robert Ross, project leader for the Engineering Properties of Wood, Wood Products and Structures with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ross also concluded that the tower was beyond repair.
“There is significant deterioration of the columns where they are in contact with the concrete support pads,” said Ross in a letter to the DNR. “In my experience, the deterioration always extends significantly up into the member, greatly reducing its load-carrying capacity.”
Ross recommended deconstructing the tower and seeing if any of the wood is salvageable for a rebuild.
“Before we decide we’re going to tear it down, I want to know absolutely for certain that’s the only option,” said Rep. Joel Kitchens. “I think we have questions we need to ask the engineers. If the evidence is overwhelming, then we will do everything that we can to have it rebuilt in the same way that it is now. I think the money will get it done one way or another.”
If the decision is made to rebuild instead of repair, the price tag will vary greatly depending on what the DNR decides to build. A structure that is compliant with the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) would include a four-stop elevator and cost between $1.7 and $2.5 million. Leiterman said that, since the ADA doesn’t speak directly to observation towers, there is room for interpretation and bypassing the requirement of ADA compliance.
But reconstructing the existing tower without ADA compliance would cost an estimated $540,000 to $650,000. Both scenarios would take 18 months after approval.
“We wanted to start a pledge drive to raise money for the tower,” said Chris Holicek, president of the Friends of Peninsula State Park. “But we were advised from the DNR to wait until we had a plan. We have to get the approval of the DNR from a Friends perspective.”
“I would suggest you start,” responded Lasee. “It would be helpful to start a local fund, a matching fund…Have a state government partnership and local partnership.”
“The reason why the department held back on that is because we don’t know where we’re going right now,” said Leiterman. Fundraising campaigns may look different if the goal is $540,000 or $2.5 million, if the process will take the full 18 months or if small donations can buy some wood epoxy and have it open by May 27.
During the public comment portion, Gibraltar Town Board member Brian Hackbarth stated his pledge of $100 to start the fund.
Ephraim resident Niles Weborg also received applause for his suggestion of a turnstile or hired help to monitor the number of people on the tower at one time, easing the threat of overloading the tower with visitors, at least as a temporary measure until the DNR has plans for the tower’s future.
Those plans remain undecided but discussion continues as Lasee’s bill passes through the legislature and fundraising begins locally.