When and why was the barge installed?
The barge was installed in 1982 to make launching power boats and sailboats safer. The plans also included a walkway on top of the barge and angled parking for the use of fishermen. The Park District paid about $250,000 for these improvements. (That is about $666,000 in today’s money) These plans for Park Avenue Beach were developed by the City’s Lakefront Commission in cooperation with the Park District.
Before the barge was installed there was a steep, difficult ramp going directly into the Lake and on many days it was dangerous to launch.
What is the function of the barge?
The barge was towed here from Waukegan and sunk in its current location to create a protected boating beach. The barge was first filled with sand, then topped with grave and topped with concrete to create a walkway. After the barge work was done, the concrete boating ramp and dock were installed west of the barge.
In addition to making it safer to launch power boats, the barge creates a protected cove that makes launching small watercraft easier. So the barge has allowed the Yacht Club to develop a vibrant learn to sail program. In the years since the barge was installed more sand has built up in the South Beach area, giving more space for small boat storage.
What about the high water levels?
Looking back at 160 years of Lake Michigan’s water levels, there’s been a 7 foot difference between the lowest (about 576.5’) and the highest (about 581.5’) levels. That is a big range, and both high and low levels create challenges for people who use the lake. It’s been at that high level about once every 20 years and at that low level about once every 25 years. As of November, 2019 the lake is down about 6 inches from its high in July of 581.92’. The question of course is what will happen in the future. From the 160 year record, it would be reasonable to assume that levels will go down. But in the context of climate change some are worried that a new pattern will emerge. Wet springs and cold winters would bring higher levels whereas dry springs and a warm, dry winters would bring lower levels. (This is the combination of rainfall and evaporation.)
What does the Park District intend to do about the barge?
In October 2018 consultants told the Park District it would cost more than a million dollars to have a good solution to the barge problem. The commissioners were on the verge of approving the expense but decided to postpone the decision.
But in November, 2019 the Board announced they had removed any allocation for barge repair from their budget.
They framed the issue as one that affects only power boaters. They said they believe there are too few power boaters to warrant the expense.
Instead, they invited the public to look for creative funding options with the proviso that they have no interest in issuing bonds for this purpose.
Creative funding could include private donations, for example, in exchange for naming rights, or grants.
What can happen as a result of this decision?
Not funding the barge repair at this time may mean the end of power boat launching in Highland Park. The Board accepts this.
The Park District has been told that losing the ramp will adversely affect more than just a few recreational power boaters. Kayakers, sailors, paddleboarders, fishermen, and people who just come down to contemplate the lake have all spoken out. In addition, we question their data. The Park District canceled the issuance of day passes for power boaters after the rehab of the power plant. That means that only those who pay over $1000 for seasonal storage can use the ramp. Before they did this, many more boaters, including many Highland Park residents, used the ramp. They have been forced to seek other access to the lake and are likely to come back should accessibility be returned.
Are there safety implications?
Fire Department and other emergency vehicles hold regular drills at the ramp. The Park District feels they could move operations to Lake Forest. We believe this would mean a loss of safety for Highland Park as rescue times could be delayed. It would also mean the loss of the North Shore Yacht Club’s ability to launch rescue boats. The club has been involved on several rescues in the lake.
What options could be on the table for the barge?
There are three possible ways to persuade the Park District to re-consider their position:
1. A large grant from the State of Illinois or a commitment from some other outside funding source.
2. Finding a different solution with a substantially lower cost.
3. A large public outcry – if enough people tell the Park Commissioners it’s a mistake things often change.
If none of these happen, the barge will continue to fail and eventually the concrete ramp will collapse. In that case the Park District will probably be required to spend about $200,000 to remove the remnants of the barge and the ramp.