A Baraboo woman is leading an effort to oppose potential construction of a new lakefront building at Wisconsin’s most popular state park.
Claire Dwyer can trace her connection to Devil’s Lake State Park back to when she was just one month old, photographed in her parents’ arms in front of the lake. Now retired, she said she visits the park almost daily during the warmer months.
She’s gathered a “loose coalition” of locals — she estimated about 18 — that she’s calling the Defenders of Devil’s Lake to push the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to consider alternative locations for a proposed educational center.
“We want to preserve the beauty, the quality (of the lake), you know,” she said. “We’re locals. We’re people that come here a lot.”
The development, spearheaded by the Friends of Devil’s Lake in partnership with the DNR and Devil’s Lake Concessions Corporation, has been in the works for more than three years but the idea has been around at least since 1982, included in the park’s now-outdated master plan. The Friends board of directors recently hired Stevens Point-based Baker Street Consulting Group to help fundraise $18 million for the project over the next three years.
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An earlier report by contracted firm GWWO Architects of Baltimore developed conceptual designs and identified one potential site on the park’s north shore, east of the existing buildings and railroad tracks, as having the most advantages of the eight that were considered. The team involved in the site selection process included Lake Delton-based Architectural Design Consultants and representatives from the park, DNR, Friends group and Concession Corp.
The proposed center would house interpretive exhibits on the park, serving as a “gateway” to the Wisconsin State Park System and the surrounding region, rather than just Devil’s Lake, according to the report. Also included would be retail space, a cafe, a rentable community area, administrative offices and restrooms.
At a 2019 public meeting, several people expressed concerns about the chosen location due to existing issues like overuse of natural resources, insufficient staffing, congestion and lack of parking during summer months. Some said a modern building would clash with the north shore’s current aesthetic or take away from the sense of being in nature.
“To have that building on either shore is going to be, just for practical reasons, crazy,” Dwyer said. “If they have a parking lot by this building, it’s going to fill up in five minutes with people that are going to get out with their picnic stuff, their dog, the kids and they’re going to head to the beach. That parking lot will be full.”
Linda Meadowcroft of Baraboo echoed Dwyer’s concerns, saying the north shore area is already “terribly congested” in the summer and getting worse with time. Litter left by visitors is a significant issue, she said.
Though she said she’s not in the Defenders, both she and Dwyer are members of the Friends group and attended its annual meeting Sept. 26. Meadowcroft said many members were surprised by the preliminary concept designs because they didn’t capture the “essence” or “spirit” of the lake.
“We want to display the beauty of the lake. We want that to be the most prominent feature,” she said.
Ski Hi alternative
Dwyer offered a counterproposal to Friends President Bernadette Greenwood, DNR staff and other project leaders. She said she wants them to look again at one of the potential sites they dismissed: a field at the corner of Ski Hi Road and South Shore Road, away from the busiest areas of the park but still along a route many Madison-area visitors take to get there.
“They could build the most beautiful, modern building they want in the world and not have to worry about the aesthetics of it not fitting in with the Chateau, the bath house, et cetera — right? — and have plenty of extra parking,” she said.
Her goal, she said, is to get the agency to study the location as it develops a new master plan for Devil’s Lake.
Meadowcroft and frequent Devil’s Lake angler Ed Taylor, Baraboo, said they liked Dwyer’s proposed location better than the official one. While he said he doesn’t feel as strongly about the issue as Dwyer does, a building on the north shore would be “an eyesore” and cause more congestion, Taylor said.
The site selection committee dismissed the Ski Hi Road location early in the process partially because it lacks a “sense of being near a special place,” according to the GWWO report, which said it would be “better utilized as overflow parking with shuttles.”
In a statement to the News Republic, Friends President Greenwood said it “has several drawbacks and was ranked as one of the four least-desirable sites” in GWWO’s assessment because of its distance from the park’s unique features and lack of utility infrastructure. She said it also wouldn’t draw as many people as a facility with a view of the lake and bluffs, which would limit its ability to fund itself though rentals as a venue for special events such as weddings.
The assessment identified the north shore as the site with the most advantages. Greenwood said it’s easily accessible, less impactful on natural resources, offers financial and educational benefits and has a connection with recreational resources.
“All directions point to that location,” she said in a phone interview.
She added in the statement: “We believe that the educational/interpretive center will be a major park asset, and one that will enhance visitors’ experiences, inside and outside of the park. Because of that, we want to see this multi-use center sited in the best possible location.”
According to Dwyer, the bulk of the annual meeting was spent on an orientation for the interpretive center’s capital campaign. There was no discussion on the site selection, which Dwyer said she found frustrating, given that it’s the only meeting of the year attended by the full Friends membership. The nine-member board meets monthly.
The board, Dwyer said, “has their heart set on lakefront, and I just think it’s a big mistake.”
She and Meadowcroft said they’re concerned about the environmental impact a new building near the lake would have on it. Dwyer noted the lake’s sole output is a single pipe and main input is precipitation, “so this water is especially sensitive.”
“The lake, obviously, is not an amusement park. It’s not a Disney Land and it never will be,” Meadowcroft said. “That would bring irreparable harm to the park, and everyone in the decision-making capacity needs to realize that as well. The pristine beauty of it, the rustic ambience must be preserved for it to be a unique visitors’ destination.”
But Taylor, a retired soils scientist, said he’s satisfied with the park’s current system of pumping wastewater to Baraboo’s municipal treatment plant, meaning a new building wouldn’t pose any additional risk to the lake. Constructing the building could, but it depends on the specific plans, he said.
Based on Baker Street Consulting’s capital campaign orientation, Meadowcroft said she’s worried about the influence large, outside donors will have on the project. The firm told the Friends that because the fundraising will involve national and international donors, it wouldn’t be a Baraboo project, she said.
Greenwood said Devil’s Lake, which draws visitors from around the world and particularly from Illinois, is not just a local park. Its attendance numbers — estimated at 2.6 million in 2019 — put it on par with some national parks.
“It should come as no surprise that some of them will want to support the project financially because of their connection to the park and because they also recognize the importance of the center and educational benefits it will provide,” Greenwood said in a statement. “We welcome all those who share a love of Devil’s Lake State Park, from our local friends to those across Wisconsin and beyond.”
She said the Friends board “specifically hired an unbiased outsider” — GWWO — that could see all of the available options when conducting the site selection process.
Meadowcroft, who runs a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Native American and minority cultures, also said she’d like to see the Friends develop a reciprocal relationship with the Ho-Chunk Nation, including adding a representative to the board. She said she was happy the board invited Bill Quackenbush, tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, to speak at the annual meeting.
“We have to remember that the Ho-Chunk, the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk and other Nations were the first peoples here and they were the first peoples who used the lake for sacred purposes,” she said. “That shouldn’t be forgotten and I don’t think that that whole part of the picture has been fully embraced at this point. It’s not enough that they’re just invited to present a talk at an annual meeting.”
Quackenbush did not respond to interview requests.
Friends leaders said during an earlier stage of the planning process that they intended to meet with Ho-Chunk Nation representatives along with other stakeholders on what they wanted to see in the new facility.
A final decision on location won’t come until the DNR finishes developing its new Central Sand Hills regional master plan. As part of the process, department staff are currently drafting goals for each property, which they expect to present in early 2022, according to its website. The website previously said they expected to have a draft master plan ready by spring of 2021, a timeline reflected in GWWO’s report.
The DNR’s media contact did not respond to a request for information on the status of the master plan and for comment on locals’ concerns. Devil’s Lake Superintendent Jim Carter also did not return a similar message.
Greenwood said the DNR is using GWWO’s report in developing the master plan, which will address the new building’s final location. Whether any alternative sites will be considered is up to the DNR, she said.
Dwyer questioned the Friends’ move to begin fundraising for a new building before choosing a location and design, which would impact the cost. The design team estimated the project’s probable cost at $13.4 million in 2019, based partially on square footage cost data from comparable projects. With inflation, it estimated it would cost nearly $16 million in 2024, but that’s not including the effect of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the meantime, Dwyer said the Defenders now have a website, may start an online petition to gather support and will give public input when the opportunity opens up again later in the master planning process.
Photos: Visitors enjoy Devil's Lake and Parfrey's Glen
Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.