Washburn City Council members are debating giving residents a chance to voice their wishes about a contentious downtown property's future at a series of community forums.
Attempts to determine the destiny of the prime Omaha Street real estate spot between Second Avenue West and Central Avenue haven't run smoothly over recent months and years as many residents have promoted competing visions for the lot sporting a Lake Superior view.
With so many ideas and developments under consideration, council members on Monday considered hosting forums for residents to share their thoughts. The move failed for the time being, but likely will return when details of the forums are worked out.
A look back at the property's history shows how the city recently rejected a plan to build apartments on the land. Before that, a Twin Cities man wanted to transform the green space into a theater experience catering to summertime tourists.
As the city wrangles with the plot's future, that plan might be making a comeback.
John Weinel is owner of StageNorth, a 142-seat theater overlooking the Omaha Street property. The Twin-Cities-Area resident bought the 8 1/2-acre lot from the city in 2012 with plans centered around building an ancient-Greece-inspired amphitheater for summer stock performances of Shakespeare.
He hoped that ticket sales to tourists would put StageNorth's revenue in the black for the first time, and he plunged his time and energy into developing the lot.
Weinel said he sank about $50,000 into hauling out buried garbage and the remains of former buildings, removing trees and then grading and reseeding the land.
He knew he was working on a deadline.
The $150,000 purchase agreement with Washburn stipulated that he have at least one structure in place within 18 months. As he hadn't determined exactly where the amphitheater would sit and therefore couldn't erect the planned-for scene shop to satisfy the
terms of the deal, he asked the city if he could pave a diagonal parking lot along the street and call it good for the time being.
Believing he had a firm "handshake deal" with the city giving him more time, Weinel put off development, but as soon as the 18-month deadline passed, the city informed Weinel it was exercising its option to buy back the property, or rather "seize" it, as Weinel put it.
Weinel appealed to the council at its Aug. 18, 2014, meeting to no avail.
Weinel said Councilwoman Mary McGrath led the charge to buy back the property. According to him, McGrath said the property has too many bugs and sees too much rain for an amphitheater.
When contacted by the Daily Press for comment, McGrath said she would have to review her notes as to what was said, but she did say Weinel's "pie in the sky" plans kept changing and it had been "now or never" for the city to take back the property to ensure development plans best suited the city.
Why not take back the land and move toward a development that better reflected the comprehensive plan and increase the city's tax base, she asked.
Weinel fought the city for a while, but he eventually signed over the deed and received a check for $143,000 — the original purchase price less property taxes owed on the land while he battled. He estimates he lost between $60,000 and $65,000 on development plans and work on the lot.
That left the land sitting vacant for the past five years as residents and officials tossed around ideas and visions for what it should be and how it best should be used.
Washburn undeniably needs tourist income to raise the fortunes of the Bayfield County burg, but in many eyes it also needs housing — and in particular low-income housing.
Earlier this year Movin' Out, a Madison-based group, presented plans to the City Council for a housing development for a range of incomes. The council also debated carving the property into lots for single-family homes.
The council decided against Movin' Out's proposal — for the time being — and determined that the community needed to be consulted to help develop plans for the property.
Council President Karen Spears-Novachek presented a plan to council members for a three-part series of forums to hammer out recommendations for developing the property that can be implemented within two years.
But the council on Monday decided too many questions, including whether the meetings should address only Omaha Street or the entire community, and who will facilitate the meetings, remained unanswered and decided to hold off.
McGrath said she looks forward to the community forums. The city can't afford to make a mistake on Omaha Street's development.
"It will come back to the table," she said. When that might be is undecided.
Meanwhile, Weinel lives in hope that his plans for an amphitheater and park can be resurrected with the help of Jeff Moberg and Mick Anderson, the men behind the Harbor View Event Center. New plans have been drawn up, and they are on display along with artist renderings at StageNorth.
But Moberg, reached for comment before the meeting, said plans to pursue development were a ways down the road and the city needed to take a look at plans for the community as a whole.
So development proposals are back in limbo to be chewed on further by a community divided until residents can come together on a project most of them can rally around.