NY-based resort company wins Yerkes Observatory bid

By David Kaye

The University chose from two competing bidders for the deed to historic Yerkes Observatory in early June, closing eight months of deliberation. Mirbeau Company, a resort developer based in Skaneateles, N.Y., won the bidding for the observatory land.

Yerkes Observatory, owned and operated by the University since 1897, is home to the world’s largest refracting telescope and sits on 78 acres overlooking Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

The process of selling Yerkes began in mid-2005 when Hank Webber, vice president for community and government affairs, sent out a request for proposals for the property to three parties, including Mirbeau; Aurora University, whose George Williams Campus is adjacent to Yerkes; and a third party that later rescinded its proposal.

The Mirbeau proposal is being stonewalled by the surrounding town of Williams Bay, however, which must approve the proposal before the sale can be finalized.

Under the June 7 agreement, Mirbeau would donate the observatory to the village of Williams Bay and would be permitted to develop 45 acres of the property with a retreat center adjacent to Lake Geneva and 72 residential units.

The University would receive more than $8 million from Mirbeau for astronomy and astrophysics research. Yerkes would be supported by about $400,000 in annual funding, generated by room and property taxes from the Mirbeau development.

Additionally, the University would donate to the observatory $2.5 million over the first five years: $300,000 annually for maintenance, and $1 million to contribute toward new educational and outreach programming at Yerkes.

A series of three public meetings were held over the summer for the residents of Williams Bay to critique the proposal.

At the first meeting, held on July 13, Gary Dower, owner and managing director of Mirbeau, presented Mirbeau’s proposal to the village and addressed questions only from the village board and the village planning commission.

Residents were asked to submit questions in writing, said Mary Claire Lanser, director of public affairs for Mirbeau. They responded overwhelmingly; a town of 2,668 putting forward more than 500 questions, which were then categorized and selectively addressed at the second meeting, held on August 3. The questions were primarily financial, although some also covered issues such as roads, traffic, boats and lake usage, and environmental conservation.

More than 300 residents attended the third meeting, where they were allowed to address Dower and Webber directly. The meeting also featured a third-party moderator and the presence of Williams Bay police officials.

Many residents were vocal about their opposition to the proposal, criticizing the University of Chicago for not approaching the village earlier in the process.

“I feel like we’re being railroaded…and we’re not a bunch of yokels,” said Harold Friestad, a resident of Williams Bay.

Webber acknowledged that the University may have taken an incorrect approach.

“We made a decision—which maybe wasn’t the right decision—that we would come with a plan. It may have been that we should have come at an earlier time with a problem,” he said.

Other residents accused Webber of neglecting their concerns. “I’ve sent you numerous e-mails; you’ve never answered one,” resident Bob Kelly said to a round of applause.

Kelly also accused the University of neglecting its financial responsibility. “Dr. Webber, this is all about money,” he said. “I think you can see here is not a vote of confidence for your proposal— university has over four billion dollars in your endowment—isn’t this financial issue yours to bear and not the University’s?”

“The cost of maintaining Yerkes to the University of Chicago in rough terms is about $100 tax for each student in the College,” Webber said. “We believe that’s a very hard tax to imply on those students.”

After two hours and ten minutes of questioning, Williams Bay president Don Weyrauch ended the meeting, which he also said would be the last public discussion.

In an e-mail interview, Webber noted that many residents were against the Mirbeau plan.

“I was disappointed that there was not more expressed community support for the Mirbeau Plan,” he said. “I continue to believe that it is a strong plan.”

Lanser confirmed in an interview on Thursday that there is “no news” of an official, revised proposal from Mirbeau.

Despite the controversy, work at Yerkes is moving forward. The Janesville Gazette, a local Wisconsin newspaper, recently reported that Yerkes has been awarded an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create the Yerkes Astrophysics Academy for Young Scientists, a two-year science program for Wisconsin elementary-school students.