Relieved Wilmette Harbor Association members hugged outside the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's boardroom Thursday after commissioners gave the group the 39-year harbor management lease it sought.
The unanimous vote reverses an April 4 rejection of the WHA's $68,501 bid, which went against MWRD staff recommendations and threatened to leave the harbor closed after April 30 and unattended this summer, Pioneer Press is reporting.
"It's a relief," WHA board member Kristin Keenan said. "I'm stunned, but happy."
WHA Harbormaster Sabine Herber said her next step was to call a contractor to dredge the tiny harbor, clearing it of silt and making it usable for both the MWRD's pumping station and the almost 300 boaters who will use it this summer.
"The dredger has been very patiently waiting to hear from us, so that's my first phone call," Herber said.
She had already been up for hours, checking the harbor early Thursday after torrential flooding forced the MWRD to open its floodgates there.
"This has been a long and difficult process, and we're very pleased with the outcome," she said after the vote. She praised the support of Wilmette residents who lobbied the MWRD to rethink its initial rejection.
"I was copied on a lot of messages (to the MWRD) from residents, not members of the association — people I didn't know, who said they wanted the WHA to have the lease," she said. "It's very heartening that the community likes what we're doing."
Some Wilmette residents attended the MWRD meeting, as did Wilmette Park District Commissioner Gary Benz and newly elected Park Board member Bryan Abbott.
Abbot asked the MWRD to consider taking part in a task force that would look at the best ways to make community use of Wilmette Harbor. Abbott said that could include neighboring residents and institutions, including the village and the park district — which last year decided against trying for a lease itself, after more than a year of informal discussions with the WHA.
MWRD Commissioners Barbara McGowan and Maryana Spyropoulos were the only two to speak before the vote. Both said they would have preferred to offer the WHA a shorter lease, but were willing to approve the 39-year agreement.
McGowan, whose procurement committee first recommended the WHA, voted to reject it April 4. She said Thursday she changed her mind after meeting with MWRD Executive Director David St. Pierre, "and hearing his reasons for not wanting to do a short lease."
The association has handled the harbor for the MWRD for 75 years, and representatives throughout the bid process had emphasized their history of efficient management and good relations with its neighbors. The WHA also noted that opposing bidders had no management experience.
Opposition included a branch of Wisconsin-based CenterPointe Yacht Services LLC, and Wilmette Harbor Management Inc., at least two of whose founders live in neighboring Winnetka. Both had proffered $70,000 offers, but MWRD staff called both bids financially non-responsive.
WHM Inc. President Fritz Duda angrily accused MWRD staff of "protecting" the WHA throughout the bid process.
Doing so cost Wilmette residents and taxpayers money and essentially left the harbor in the hands of a private yacht club, he said. He did not clarify whether he meant the WHA or the separate Sheridan Shores Yacht Club, which operates out of the harbor.
WHM directors had promised to make the harbor more accessible to the public, and planned to try to expand services.
After the vote, Duda repeated charges he made April 17 and again before the vote: MWRD staff never told WHM Inc. why its bid was rejected despite repeated pleas for information, he said.
Duda, of Winnetka, told commissioners Thursday they should accept one of the higher bids, or rebid the lease entirely and give the WHA a one-year lease while the process went on.
WHM directors would have to talk before deciding their next move, he said
"We're not going to comment on that."