Committee’s slim majority rejects proposal to nix Kemper Center business plan funding

Committee’s slim majority rejects proposal to nix Kemper Center business plan funding

A proposed business plan study intended to improve future marketing, operating and finances of the Kemper Center campus drew mixed reviews from a panel that oversees the Kenosha County-owned park and its historic landmarks overlooking Lake Michigan.

The Public Works and Facilities Committee voted 4-3, rejecting a supervisor’s recommendation to cut $50,000 to fund the business plan in next year’s parks budget. Voting against the recommendation were supervisors Laura Belsky, John O’Day, Aaron Karow and committee Chair Mark Nordigian. Voting in favor of the removal were supervisors Brian Thomas, who proposed the motion, Tim Stocker and Zach Stock.

Funding was part of a comprehensive review of the Department of Public Works budget, which was approved Monday night. The committee vote was advisory on both the business plan study and the overall budget, which will go to the Finance Committee for review later this month.

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Contention over how to fund the plan stem from concerns over Kemper Center’s past management and ability to sustain itself. as well as, the county’s lease with the center, which ends in 2027. Kemper Center, 6501 Third Ave., is a 17.5- acre county park overlooking Lake Michigan. It features a conference center, historic chapel, the Civil War-era Durkee Mansion, observatory, arboretum and the Anderson Arts Center. The campus is historically recognized by agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.

Time is right

Jim Kupfer, the Public Works Department’s chief financial officer, noted Kemper Center Inc., which manages the property, hasn’t been profitable. The county, for a time, however, steered away from discussions on advising the entity on how to improve business as a previous management team dealt with accusations of favoritism for a cater. That claim resulted in an open records lawsuit. A Kenosha County Circuit Court judge initially ruled that the contractual records between the county and Kemper Center Inc. were public, however, a state appeals court in 2019 overturned the decision.

“But now we think it’s time where we hire somebody to come in … to do a business plan to see if we can help Kemper re-do the way they do things, new programs … make better use of their facilities, whatever that might be,” he said. He said the hope was to “make them profitable.”

The county currently pays the center up to $100,000 each year for utilities. Kemper, in turn, leases the facility for $1 from the county.

“It’s our obligation for the county to make sure that this facility and campus is fully optimized and the more revenue and the more programs we can find to really optimize that center, either through a Kemper center, a bank, or whatever else comes out of that business plan,” said Matt Collins, county parks director. “We want to make sure that that can be potentially a sustainable park in the future. So it makes sense for us to control that for what’s in the county’s best interest.”

‘Hole by Lake Michigan’

Thomas, however, wasn’t convinced that the county should spend $50,000 on property it has owned since 1977 that hasn’t been profitable. He said that investing “hundreds of thousands” for 45 years, with no plan “to make it function” was a sign not to “dump anymore money into it.”

“In 45 years if you can’t run a business you would close it down. I can’t see any purpose of adding $50,000,” he said, adding that the current management company ought to submit its business plan to the County Board. “We didn’t get elected to continue to think we’re going to throw money into a hole by Lake Michigan because that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Supervisor Laura Belsky, who recently joined the Kemper Center board, sought to give context to the county’s acquisition of the park. She said that when the lease agreement was created it was the wish of the late Janet Anderson — who had owned the home that is now the Anderson Arts Center — that it remain county owned.

According to county records, the County Board passed a resolution Nov. 1, 1977, confirming the purchase of the Anderson property, “agreeing for itself and its successors and assigns not to sell, lease, assign or mortgage the Kemper property without the prior written approval of the Secretaries of the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Interior.” The resolution was considered and passed by the board in order to qualify for federal grants.

Prior to the Anderson property acquisition and incorporation into the Kemper property, the county had purchased Kemper for $225,000 in 1977. Of that amount, $117,789 came from Kemper Center Inc. contributions, with the remaining $107,211 from the county. The county was later reimbursed with a $61,455 Land and Water Conservation grant and a $45,766 Outdoor Recreation Program grant, federal programs administered by the Department of Interior and the Department of Natural Resources.

According to the document, the grants restrict the county’s “ability to transfer, dispose of, or otherwise cease to have the land open for public use.”

‘Jewel on the Lake’

“There are a lot of people in Kenosha that consider it the `Jewel on the Lake’, I mean, especially, if you live in the city,” said Belsky. “It isn’t as if we can sell it or not just put money into it and let it deteriorate.”

Belsky attributed some of the revenue losses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including declines in rentals. But just as the parks division has promoted a successful beer garden at Petrifying Springs, Belsky appeared confident that the same could be done for Kemper.

“So let’s not be too rash, and say that this jewel on Lake Michigan is not worth $50,000 to invest in it,” she said.

Supervisor Erin Decker, said the original lease included requirements that the management company make money, enabling self-sufficiency. According to Decker, in the original lease, the county wasn’t supposed to be paying for the utilities.

Belsky referred Decker to the new memorandum of understanding signed in 2017 that obligates the county to pay for utilities.

“That’s not the lease. That’s an MOU. I don’t understand how the county executive can sign an MOU that overrules the lease without County Board approval,” she said.

Lease in effect

A lease agreement is currently in effect, said Kupfer, in which the county pays up to $100,000 a year for Kemper’s utilities.

“That’s the lease that’s in place right now because they re-did the lease agreement five years ago,” he said.

Decker said that five years from now the county needs to look into leasing the Kemper Center to another entity that can make a profit so that it can pay for its own upkeep. Instead, the management entity, which is not subject to open records laws and thus cannot be legally compelled to divulge its finances, would be benefiting from the proposed county-sponsored business plan, according to Decker. She said the county was “getting more and more in bed” with a group that won’t show its books.

“I don’t like that,” she said.

Stock wondered whether Kemper Center Inc. would heed the study’s recommendation and wanted to know whether there was “buy-in” from the group. While he liked the idea of helping the group, the uncertainty for how a consultant would be selected and how the plan would be implemented would prevent him from voting for it.

Supervisor Amanda Nedweski, asked if Kemper Center Inc. would be willing to pay for the study. Collins clarified that he initiated the business plan project and that Kemper Center officials were not part of the decision. He said it doesn’t directly deal with the management company, but takes into account how to optimize the facility that includes the entire park campus beyond just the lease that ends in 2027.

“We have to be looking out for what our next steps are going to be even after five years from now. That’s the reason why we put this in this budget, he said.