Stakeholders Call for Authenticity in West Waterfront Plans

The first of two days of public input sessions on the Sturgeon Bay westside waterfront revealed that, in fact, city residents and stakeholders can agree on some things.

More than 125 people attended a series of stakeholder sessions and a public presentation moderated by consultants from the engineering firm of Short Elliot Hendrickson (SEH) at Sturgeon Bay High School Tuesday. The sessions revealed a broad consensus on at least one use for the property that has been the subject of so much conversation for nearly a decade: citizens overwhelmingly want to see the tugboats remain on the shoreline in a working waterfront.

The Sturgeon Bay tugboats on the cover of the April 20, 2016 issue of the Peninsula Pulse. Photo by Len Villano.

Many people also spoke up for using much of the area for public gathering space, children’s activities, or a children’s museum. Residents suggested a freshwater research station or learning center, many others called for continuing the maritime theme in maintaining the authenticity of the city.

“The tugs are something real, something we have that northern Door doesn’t have,” said one stakeholder.

Adam Goettleman pointed to the need to attract young people and families with an attractive public centerpiece.

“The population of Sturgeon Bay has been shrinking my whole life, to the point where we’re at 9,300 people” he said. “How do we get it to turn around and grow to 10,500?”

But other residents cautioned that the city doesn’t need just another green space.

“You just can’t have a park, you need something that pulls people there,” said a stakeholder in an early session. “The parks we have are empty, some are run down.”

He suggested the city put more focus on improving the parks that it already has before it embark on building another space it can’t maintain. Several residents stressed the need to spur private development wherever possible on the property, either through a hotel or multi-family residential housing, to generate tax revenue.

A map of the West Waterfront and the location of the ordinary high water mark. Submitted.

In the evening session Heidi Kennedy of SEH presented a crash course in the state’s public trust doctrine to suggest what can and can’t be developed below the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM). Roughly two thirds of the 4.7-acre westside waterfront property lies below the OHWM as determined by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources earlier this month.

Kennedy said that contrary to conventional wisdom, there are a lot of uses that might qualify to go in that space. The state holds title to all land below the OHWM, and anything developed there must be for a navigational purpose or meet a public purpose or intent.

That means a hotel, such as the one proposed by the city in 2015, can’t be developed, but it opens the door for a private business such as a marina operator or shipbuilder. It also means that a museum could qualify for the space. That museum could include other uses such as a cafe or event space, such as the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Meetings will continue Wednesday with stakeholders meeting at the Door County Community Foundation, 222 N. Third Ave. Interested parties are encouraged to stop by to share their thoughts with SEH between 9 am and 2 pm. A second public meeting will be held at Sturgeon Bay High School, 1230 Michigan St., at 7 pm, with a presentation to begin at 7:15 pm.

A rendering of a 2010 plan for the westside waterfront by Vandewalle & Associates, Inc.

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