Joint Finance Committee again denies funds for stewardship project

City of Ashland had requested $1 million for public boat launch

By: - February 6, 2024 5:45 am

Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee rejected a funding request from the City of Ashland to build a new boat launch at Kreher Park. (City of Ashland)

Republicans on the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week rejected a request from the city of Ashland for a $1.02 million grant through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to construct a public boat launch on Lake Superior. 

The project, according to local officials, would provide safer access to the lake for boaters of all kinds. The launch would be the only public lake access in the city. 

The proposed site for the project was Kreher Park, which is located on the former Ashland/Northern States Power Lakefront Superfund site. The site is under the federal superfund cleanup program due to contamination to the shoreline and groundwater from the operation of a gas plant. 

“Right now we have a 40-year-old boat launch that is going to be on its last year of usage,” Sara Hudson, director of the Ashland parks and recreation department, says. “More boats could actually launch right within the city and it would be an economic development opportunity and increase tourism to our area. It’s important to our vitality. The lake is right out our front door; being able to continue to provide safe access for people is really important for us.”

Republicans rejected the proposal, saying the city’s request that the stewardship program fund 70% of the project was too much. 

“The locals are barely at the table,” the committee’s co-chair, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said. “They can’t even meet us halfway. There are a lot of projects that get 50-50 or a lot more than that even. And local buy-in isn’t just the local government.”

In recent years, the stewardship program has become a point of contention on the committee, with Republicans using its power to essentially veto grant requests. Republican lawmakers have used that power to thwart the use of stewardship funds for several projects, including the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs on Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee and the Pelican River Forest, which is one of the largest conservation projects in state history. 

For both of those projects, Republicans placed anonymous holds on the funding, preventing the projects from moving forward without a public vote. Both projects eventually moved forward with other funding sources. 

The stewardship program is named after former Govs. Warren Knowles, a Republican, and Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat. The program has been hugely popular in the past, with widespread bipartisan support. However, in recent years, Republicans have questioned the program’s use and the extent to which land in the state should be preserved. 

Projects big and small have been completed due to assistance from Knowles-Nelson grants, including the extension of bicycle trails and the purchase of thousands of acres of forest land. 

At the committee meeting on Thursday, Republicans said they were denying the Ashland boat launch project because other municipalities have been able to complete similar projects using grant funds with the community itself providing a larger proportion of the funding. 

Born specifically referenced a previously approved project in Oconomowoc, which included a higher proportion of local funding. In October, the committee approved $1.02 million in stewardship program money to fund a public boat launch on Lac La Belle. In that project, the city of Oconomowoc, the town of Oconomowoc, the village of Lac La Belle and the lake’s management district combined to provide $1.67 million toward the project’s total $2.69 million cost. 

Born’s office did not return multiple calls asking about the project. 

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) questioned the comparison between Ashland and Oconomowoc, noting a sizable gap in median annual income between the two cities.  The median household income in Ashland, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is $40,000 while the median household income in Oconomowoc is $99,000. 

“If you’re just going to say no, you haven’t raised enough money so we’re not going to give you money,” said Roys, “you’re punishing them for being economically disadvantaged rather than saying, OK, then it’s our responsibility to step up and do more because you are a part of our state, too.”

Roys told the Examiner that Republicans have turned the stewardship program, which used to enjoy bipartisan support as a hugely successful effort to conserve land across the state for the use of future generations, into a “partisan football.”

“The overarching problem here is that what has been the most important conservation program in the state’s history has now become a partisan football that Republicans use to reward and punish,” she says.

Hudson says it would make more sense to compare Ashland to another community of similar size. Ashland’s population is 8,000, while Oconomowoc has about 18,700 residents. She added that it’s hard to find other sources of funds in the community because local nonprofit organizations are focused on filling other needs. 

“I think comparing us to a city more our size would have been more fair,” Hudson says. “We’re definitely not Oconomowoc. They’re a bigger community than us. We live in a rural, lower socioeconomic part of the state. It is hard to raise matching funding when your community is already being tapped for other improvements that need to be made.”

Aside from the economic differences between the two communities, building a boat launch on a Great Lake comes with challenges that an inland lake such as Lac La Belle does not. Construction costs are greater in the northern part of the state and there are bigger technical challenges involved in building a launch sturdy enough to handle Lake Superior’s power. 

Hudson says construction costs in the area are going to be 10-15% higher than communities further south. 

“Lake Superior is a whole different beast,” she adds. 

Despite the setback, Hudson says the city is working to find other funding for the project to make it more attractive to the Republicans on the committee. She says the community has applied for federal grant funding and inquired with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Part of the problem though, is that Ashland is ineligible for many  other grant programs because of its small size. 

“Our plan is to continue to find other matching funds to get it to that 60-40 match, which is what it sounded like the Joint Finance Committee would like to get us down to,” she says. 

“We are limited in our capacity to raise private funding, because we’re a small community and many of us city employees wear multiple hats,” she adds, but, she says,  “We’re trying to see what else is out there that we can use as a match for state funding, borrowing, looking at our other options right now.”

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Correction: This story initially listed the median individual income for Ashland and the median household income for Oconomowoc. The story has been corrected so that the median household income is listed for both cities. 

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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