Yerkes residents chime in on project... Jun 18, 2006 11:16:15 GMT -6
Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on Jun 18, 2006 11:16:15 GMT -6
Williams Bay, residents discuss Yerkes options
Charles T. Yerkes, the man who lent his name to the University of Chicago's observatory here, was something of a high-finance con man who even spent time in prison for misappropriating funds.
Now some residents of this Geneva Lake village hope that they aren't victims of another con, this one perpetuated by the university's sale of the Yerkes Observatory and its surrounding grounds to a New York developer.
About 40 residents and members of the Concerned Taxpayers of Williams Bay gathered Saturday morning at the Williams Bay United Church of Christ to discuss plans by Mirbeau Inn & Spa of Skaneateles, N.Y., to build a 100-room luxury spa and 73-home subdivision on part of the 79-acre Yerkes grounds, while turning the century-old observatory and about 32 acres over to Williams Bay as part of a special finance district.
Mirbeau, owned by Gary and Linda Dower of New York, has yet to formally present its plans to the village. A meeting date to do so has yet to be scheduled.
Whether the development plan proceeds is up to Williams Bay. The Yerkes land is zoned institutional. For Mirbeau to build anything there would require a zoning change approved by both the village's plan commission and the village board.
Village President Don Weyhrauch has promised that the process leading up to the village board's final decision will be open and subject to a number of public hearings.
The meeting was informational, but was also to develop a plan to preserve the observatory and its grounds. About a half hour into the meeting, nonresidents and press were asked to leave to let the group conduct its business in confidence.
"It's a part of our lives as a beautiful historic building and a cultural building," Andy Hays said as he summarized the Yerkes sale and development plan to the audience.
In the late 1800s Williams Bay was picked as the site for Yerkes to get it away from the smoky Chicago sky. Still home of the world's largest refracting telescope, it was cutting-edge technology until the development of radio telescopes and orbital astronomy.
The University of Chicago solicited competing proposals from Mirbeau and Aurora University, which owns the George Williams College Campus right next Yerkes.
Mirbeau offered $8 million and its development plan. Aurora offered $4.5 million and its plan to build 11 luxury homes on about 15 acres of the Yerkes grounds.
The University of Chicago will use the $8 million to consolidate its astrophysics laboratory at the Chicago campus, Hays said.
Hays said he believes Aurora was the logical choice to take over Yerkes.
"This telescope, this scientific icon, is right next to an educational institution and the University of Chicago sells it to a mall developer to turn it into a commercial development," Hays said.
And while Mirbeau calls the donation of the observatory and surrounding grounds to the village a gift, it actually carries liabilities, Hays said.
Yerkes needs $4.5 million for repairs, renovations and to make it a publicly accessible building, Hays said. That's in addition to an estimated $350,000 a year just to maintain it.
The University of Chicago is offering to maintain the observatory for the next five years.
An exposition district would be created to use room tax money from the spa and some property tax money from the subdivision to support the observatory. At this point, no one knows how much the district would be able to raise.
Hays warned that if Mirbeau's plan goes through, it might have other unwanted effects on the Geneva Lake shoreline.
"We don't want further commercial development of this lakefront," Hays said.
A successful development of Yerkes might result in irresistible market pressures on other institutional and private trust properties around the lake to also be sold for commercial development, he said.
When ever anybody is asked to leave a "public" meeting, something stinks and closd door insiders attempt to "arrange" things. When the press is asked to leave, it is no longer an open meeting, but an executive session of sorts.
Let just see what developes... #dunno#