Bidders wrestle for University’s Yerkes Observatory

By David Kaye

A major battle is underway for Yerkes Observatory, the University-owned astronomy and astrophysics research branch in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. A 77-acre property that is home to the world’s largest refracting telescope, Yerkes was put up for sale earlier this year to help fund the University’s current research efforts.

Two bids were submitted by the late September deadline to Hank Webber, vice president for Community and Government Affairs: one from Aurora University (AU), which owns the George Williams Campus straddling Yerkes, and one from private East Coast developer Mirbeau Cos., proprietor of Mirbeau Inn and Spa in Skaneateles, a town in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

In the University’s request for proposal (RFP) sent to prospective entities A.U., Mirbeau, and the Yerkes 21 Committee—an organization dedicated to the continuation of Yerkes that also sent a proposal to the University but now endorses A.U.—Webber outlined the University’s three main objectives in the site purchase: to preserve the building and immediate surrounding land, to allocate the funds from the property’s sale to the advancement of astronomy research at the University, and to improve the quality of life in the Williams Bay–Geneva Lake area.

A.U.’s proposal offers $4.5 million over four years for the site, funded by the net proceeds from the sale of 11 lots in a currently undeveloped area northeast of Yerkes. A.U.’s intentions are to turn Yerkes into an academic building for its campus, with an astronomy and science education center geared towards all levels of expertise.

Kyle Cudworth, director of Yerkes Observatory, noted the long tradition Yerkes has had with A.U. and its institutional predecessors. “There has been some cooperation for a century,” he said. “In recent years, as Yerkes’s education outreach opportunities have increased, we’ve done more and more with them.”

Mirbeau’s bid, confirmed Wednesday, October 5, by Mirbeau owners Gary and Linda Dower, offers $10 million, which it says will be generated by the development of up to one hundred homes on the property, as well as from the inn and spa Mirbeau would build overlooking Geneva Lake.

In its proposal Mirbeau said that Yerkes Observatory would be governed by a non-profit foundation, suggesting representatives from the U of C, A.U., Mirbeau Cos., the village of Williams Bay, the state of Wisconsin, and the Geneva Lake Conservancy (GLC), a non profit conservation advocacy group in Walworth County, Wisconsin, where Yerkes Observatory is located.

Ted Parge, vice president for advancement at A.U., released a statement Wednesday expressing surprise at A.U.’s mention in the Mirbeau bid, writing, “We have not had any discussion with Mirbeau, and we believe ours is the better of the two proposals.”

Parge said Thursday that A.U. is pursuing its bid, which “was based on the needs of local communities and took a thoughtful conservation perspective.”

For its part, the GLC does not endorse either proposal, said GLC President Chuck Ebeling, who added that A.U.’s bid “provides for substantial conservation only one small corner,” whereas Mirbeau creates “a very intense development leaves three acres for conservation.”

Mirbeau co-owner Gary Dower responded to Parge’s statement in an interview Thursday, saying that the University’s RFP stipulated that each responder consider how A.U. might contribute to the Yerkes facility. “If our proposal is ultimately accepted, we recommend offering Aurora University the opportunity to fold Yerkes Observatory into ,” he said.

Also clarifying Mirbeau’s proposal was Dower’s publicist Mary Claire Lanser, who said that the number of homes developed would depend upon the expectations of Williams Bay and were “to be negotiated.”

Webber expected a decision around “early winter,” adding that it would be made by an ad hoc committee of trustees, the University’s senior scientific leadership, the dean of the Physical Sciences Division, and senior administrators.

In regard to the large difference between the two bids’ financial components, Webber avoided comparing the two offers. “We have to work carefully,” said Webber, citing the timing of payments as “one of the many issues we’ll be evaluating.”

All parties emphasized the significance of Yerkes Observatory’s past and the present Williams Bay community. “It’s the home of astrophysics,” said Ebeling, who noted that Yerkes was nominated for designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1989. “Both Aurora University and Mirbeau teams, recognizing local support is important to their bid, have been meeting widely with local groups,” Webber said.