APPLETON – The city has agreed to enter talks with the Trout Museum of Art about the museum’s desire to relocate on public property at Ellen Kort Peace Park along the Fox River.
The Common Council on Wednesday authorized staff to explore a potential partnership with the museum. The vote was 9-3 with one abstention.
“Regardless of the ultimate decision, and I’m still not convinced, we owe the community a thorough examination of the proposal,” council member Denise Fenton said.
The Trout Museum has decided to build a 30,000-square-foot museum instead of renovating its existing building adjacent to Houdini Plaza, and its preferred location is Ellen Kort Peace Park.
Executive Director Christina Turner estimated the cost of the new museum at $10 million. Monroe and Sandra Trout contributed $5 million to the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to support the project.
Appleton already has a master plan to develop Ellen Kort Peace Park as a passive park, and grading and trail construction have begun, but city staff expressed a willingness to negotiate with the Trout Museum.
After the council’s vote, Mayor Jake Woodford clarified the meaning of the action.
“The administration does not take this as authorization to proceed all the way to a project plan,” he said. “We recognize that there will be many steps in this process.”
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Council member Bill Siebers abstained from the vote, saying he was uncomfortable with proceeding without knowing the specifics of the proposal.
“What I’m hearing is, ‘It’s a great idea. It’s done. Let’s just put the details to it and let’s move on,'” Siebers said. “I’m not there.”
Council member Nate Wolff was also uneasy but voted in favor of the talks.
“I do feel uncomfortable with the fact that some of this feels as if the Trout Museum and their partners assume this is a done deal if this passes here,” Wolff said.
Council members Vaya Jones, Vered Meltzer and Israel Del Toro voted against entering talks with the museum. Jones said residents have expressed a lot of concerns over the proposal.
“I don’t think it’s going to be just a conversation,” Jones said. “I think that the tsunami of money and power behind this decision is going to … squelch what our neighbors are saying.”
Meltzer, too, said the public sentiment does not support moving ahead with talks.
“Our green space is limited,” Meltzer said. “We only have a certain amount available, and when greenspace is taken away, it doesn’t come back. This is a finite resource, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. I’d much rather see the Trout Museum collaborate with the city in a different area.”
During a public forum, Cindy Kort, one of Ellen Kort’s daughters, encouraged the city to engage in talks with the museum.
“We feel our mother would support this collaboration,” she said.
Curt Detjen, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, also asked the council to proceed with negotiations.
“Tonight’s opportunity holds so much promise to create a one-of-a-kind place where our residents and our visitors will want to be,” Detjen said.
Appleton resident Elisa DeGroot offered a different perspective. She said the museum’s proposal runs counter to the city’s own plan for Ellen Kort Peace Park, which was developed with community input.
She said the sudden change of plans “represents a reneging of a Common Council commitment to the people of Appleton that will result in the effective erasure of a city park.”
“It’s going to be a corporate campus,” DeGroot continued, “and Ellen Kort Park will become a meaningless footnote in the shadow of an enormous building.”
The Trout Museum moved to its current site at 111 W. College Ave. in 2002, when it was known as the Appleton Art Center. In 2010, the Trouts gave their art collection to the center and established a $1 million endowment to preserve, protect and promote the collection. It was then that the center was renamed the Trout Museum of Art.
The seven-acre Ellen Kort Peace Park is nestled between the Fox River and West Water Street west of the Oneida Skyline Bridge. It’s named in honor of Kort, a literary giant of the Fox Cities who served as Wisconsin’s first poet laureate (2000 to 2004). She died in 2015.
The master plan for the park calls for lighted trails, two circular gathering lawns, a peace ring, sculptures, a peace pole, a poet’s garden, a quilt garden, a butterfly garden, a gazebo, a pavilion with restrooms, and a curved, pile-supported walkway extending over the edge of the Fox River.
Last fall, Appleton transferred $750,000 from the David and Rita Nelson River Crossing to pay for the first phase of the park development, which is ongoing.
Dean Gazza, Appleton’s director of parks, recreation and facilities management, said city staff have discussed the minimum conditions that would be necessary for a partnership with the Trout Museum and asked that the council affirm the conditions in authorizing further negotiations.
The conditions include:
- The city will retain ownership of the land. A long-term lease would be recommended.
- Park development costs and the value of a lease will be determined through the evaluation process, and the museum will compensate the city for both. Gazza said the museum “recognizes that the city expects to be made financially whole in any arrangement in Ellen Kort Peace Park.”
- The museum design will incorporate sustainable features to minimize the environmental effects of the building.
- City representatives must be involved in the design of the museum to ensure compatibility with the park, neighborhood and environmental regulations.
Contact Duke Behnke at 920-993-7176 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DukeBehnke.