Village Buys Helm’s for $4.9 Million

Last October the redevelopment of Helm’s Four Seasons hotel in downtown Sister Bay was the subject of controversy centered on a marina proposal tied to the hotel/condominium project. After those plans cooled, the saga came to an unexpected conclusion Monday night as the village board agreed to purchase the property from Terry Zielke for $4.9 million.

The purchase will more than double the publicly owned shoreline downtown, as the 2.24-acre property includes 371 feet of water frontage. The parcel includes three houses and land across the street from the hotel.

Village President Denise Bhirdo said the deal will “preserve and protect our beach for generations to come.”

The land is adjacent to the existing public beach, which many worried would be harmed if a marina were built in conjunction with the Zielke’s plans to redevelop the hotel.

Several residents in attendance spoke in favor of the idea, including Lars Johnson of Al Johnson’s restaurant, who said the move will be good for business and applauded the decision of the Zielke’s to offer to sell to the village.

“The Zielkes have explored a lot of different options with the property,” he said, “they didn’t have to go this way.”

Zielke said he is happy to be done with negotiations, especially after the array of setbacks they encountered with their redevelopment proposal.

“The village showed interest right away,” Zielke said. “We’re thrilled the public will be able to use the land forever.”

But others worried about the loss of another business in a downtown filled with empty retail space and quiet sidewalks.

“Removing more beds from this town is not a good move for this community,” said Mitch Larson, owner of On Deck Sportswear in Sister Bay.

Greg Sunstrom, owner of Little Sister Resort and Fred and Fuzzy’s Restaurant, implored the board to focus efforts and dollars on unfinished projects and less costly facelifts. Additional costs, such as demolition of the hotel, construction and lighting of the park, and the loss of tax dollars concern him.

“$4.9 million is not the number we’re looking at,” he said. “We’ve got the athletic field, affordable housing, burying the [power lines]. Or how about using that money as incentives to bring business into Sister Bay?”

Sunstrom instead asked the village to buy the property where Al Johnson’s Boutique, a retail store across from the famous restaurant, stands now. Such a purchase would connect the village marina with the beach, creating a continuous public waterfront from the Helm’s property on the south to Marina Park on the north. Board member Andrew Nocker pointed out a significant flaw in that plan.

“That property,” Nocker said, “is not for sale. This one is.”

Ken Church was the only board member to dissent from the decision, which he called “a good idea” he might be in favor of if he was certain the village would sell off other surplus properties to offset the expense.

“There are so many things we’re doing that we haven’t finished,” he said in echoing Sunstrom’s concerns. Church said he would have preferred the decision go to referendum, recalling the public outcry just a few years back when the village spent only $3.2 million on a new fire station.

In the end the board took what trustee Sharon Doersching called “a leap of faith” and approved the purchase. Several board members called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to preserve the waterfront for future generations.

The deal is slated to close Nov. 15. The Zielkes will operate the hotel until then, as the village did not want to have the property sit empty or be in the process of demolition during peak tourism season.

The sale will end the property’s 48 years in hands of the Zielke family. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in it,” Zielke said. “But as long as the public retains access it’s a good move.”

He said his family plans to stay in the area and support the community where their two young children attend school.

Village Administrator Bob Kufrin estimated demolition and park development costs at $600,000, bringing the total cost of the purchase to about $5.5 million. The village released three options for borrowing the funds necessary, which would result in a levy increase between $.61 and $1.07 per thousand of assessed property value.

There have been no decisions made on how the property will be used, though the village laid out broad parameters in a report. One option would be to expand the existing beach and park and add a waterfront “boardwalk.”

The village could sell the portion of the land across Mill Road to offset costs, or close Mill Road to make the property continuous. The village stressed that no decisions have been made and “there will be many opportunities for the public to participate in the planning process.”

“The waterfront will now be the focus on where we should promote ourselves,” Doersching said.

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