Wilmette Harbor could close

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Hundreds of North Shore boaters will likely be without a place to put their vessels this summer after the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District yesterday rejected the lease bid from the group that has managed Wilmette Harbor for 75 years.

The 4-3 vote marked a dramatic turn in the two-year debate over the management of the 300-slip harbor nestled between the Baha’i Temple and Lake Michigan. After the meeting, water reclamation district Executive Director David St. Pierre said it’s unlikely that a new tenant could take over the lease in time for boating season.

The harbor closing also would affect the hundreds who take sailing lessons every summer, said David Schmitt, who has used the harbor for more than 50 years.

“It’s insane,” said Schmitt, who serves on the board of directors of the Wilmette Harbor Association, the private group that lost the lease. “The impact goes far beyond a few mooring holders.”

It also could mean the end of the road for the harbor association, which submitted the lowest of three bids for the lease but was the only one deemed “financially responsive” by the water reclamation district.

The harbor association’s temporary permit expires at the end of the month. St. Pierre said the permit, which has been extended several times since the lease expired in July, could be extended again — if the group is interested.

It’s not.

“We’re vacating the premises,” said Jim Dominik, president of the Wilmette Harbor Association’s board of directors. “It’s obviously what we were told to do.”

It makes no sense for the harbor association to accept another permit and the expenses that come with it without the guarantee of a long-term lease, Dominik said. Bidding again seems unlikely, he added.

“If they didn’t want to give us the lease now, I don’t know why they would” grant it if the association bids again, Dominik said.

The vote was a win for Wilmette Harbor Management, one of the two high bidders ruled “financially nonresponsive.” Officials with the new not-for-profit group have decried the unfairness of the bidding process, saying the district ruled them out without providing timely clarification on what was missing from the application.

Wilmette Harbor Management officials have also consistently attacked the harbor association on questions of limited access and needed repairs. Water reclamation district commissioners’ rejection of the lease bid was “the appropriate action,” said Warren James, vice president of Wilmette Harbor Management.

“We would have preferred to have won the contract and secured the lease at this time, but if this is the best we can do, so be it,” James said. “I think it should be rebid.”

Some of the commissioners also expressed concerns about the bidding process.

“I’m still not clear about the process. Because there’s conversation on both sides about what has happened that was appropriate and what’s happened that was not appropriate,” Commissioner Michael Alvarez said before voting no and saying he wants the lease rebid.

Commissioner Debra Shore said she trusted the district staff’s recommendation to approve the harbor association lease but had concerns about the district assuming liability at the harbor and effectively ensuring public safety.

Commissioners Alvarez, Frank Avila, Barbara McGowan and Cynthia Santos voted against the lease. Board President Kathleen Meany and Commissioners Shore and Patrick Thompson voted for it. Commissioner Mariyana Spyropoulos voted present, and Commissioner Kari Steele was absent from the meeting.

Without a tenant, the water reclamation district will be responsible for dredging, estimated to cost $250,000, which has to be done even without boats in the harbor, St. Pierre said. The district must get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and then put the project out for bid.

Longtime supporters of the Wilmette Harbor Association were fuming after the meeting.

“Want to buy a boat?” Paul Malm, a Wilmette sailor, asked Alvarez as he stepped into the elevator.

“You’re a disgrace!” a woman shouted at Alvarez.

Alvarez asked security guards standing nearby to block the elevator doors.

By Gregory Trotter

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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  • George B

    This is government bought by the 1% at its worst. The MWRD Board completed a public and transparent bid process, then rejected their own staff's recommendation because Michael Alvarez and Jesse Juarez found a way to get paid. Now, we taxpayers now get stuck with an extra $500,000 in taxes and an eyesore. Ridiculous!

  • Greg

    Just wait when Wilmette Harbor is vacant and there is nobody to keep up with it… Piece by piece, it when slowly fill with trash and become nothing more than a public eyesore by mid-summer. Each time you drive by, it will be a reminder of what ALVAREZ did to line his own pockets…. Now, it's the taxpayers who will pay for it! Thanks again!