Wilmette Harbor will open for boating season after all, following the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's decision Thursday to reverse course and award a 39-year lease to the private association that has operated the harbor for decades.
Earlier this month, district commissioners voted 4-3 not to renew the Wilmette Harbor Association's lease — a move that likely would have shuttered the harbor for the season. There was little discussion among commissioners Thursday as they voted again, this time 9-0 to approve the group's lease bid.
It ended more than two years of debate over who should manage the 300-slip basin that sits between the Baha'i temple and Lake Michigan. The harbor association has been in charge for 75 years but was criticized during the bidding for poor upkeep and exclusivity — claims it consistently denied.
As the votes were called out, Sabine Herber, executive director for the association, slowly raised her hand to her mouth and held it there for a long moment. She was soon hugging supporters in the lobby.
"It was a big relief," Herber said, adding that she had been flooded with calls and emails from people hoping the harbor would stay as it is. "I feel like I've been carrying them along with me throughout this journey."
Not everyone was happy. Fritz Duda, president of Wilmette Harbor Management, which had submitted a higher bid than the association for the lease, said political clout won the day.
"In the typical Chicago tradition, certain commissioners were leaned on to vote a certain way," he said after the vote. "I think we had an honest vote at the last meeting. We're disappointed."
Commissioner Michael Alvarez said he changed his mind after sitting down with water district staff after the previous vote and examining the applications in detail. It was clear that the association was the only financially responsible bidder, he said.
He denied Duda's assertion that he was swayed by political pressures.
"To call it 'Chicago politics' sounds like sour grapes to me," Alvarez said.
The association had bid $68,501 per year to lease the harbor from the water district. Wilmette Harbor Management and CenterPointe Yacht Services had each bid $70,000 per year but had been called "financially nonresponsive" in their bid documents by district staff.
Duda and his associates have been critical of the bidding process, saying they were not given specific information on why their group was deemed nonresponsive until it was too late.
Alvarez declined to say exactly what was missing from Wilmette Harbor Management's application. Asked why there wasn't a more careful examination before the last vote, Alvarez said he didn't know and acknowledged there was room for improvement.
"The board acted at the last board meeting in a way in which we evaluated the information that we had the time to take a look at, because of the voluminous things coming in," he said.
For Herber, it's time to get to work. Before any boats can moor in the harbor, dredging is needed.
"We're many months behind. It will be an uphill challenge," Herber said. "But we're prepared to do that."
Sue Watson, a Wilmette boater and harbor association supporter, was thrilled by the vote.
She hoped the association can work to dispel perceptions of exclusivity by reaching out more to the community and being more transparent with the waiting list.
"I'm just glad it's over now," she said.