WILLMAR – When a person thinks of a lighthouse, they might picture it on the coasts of oceans or the Great Lakes, to guide ships safely into port. They are not normally thought of as landmarks in west central Minnesota.
That might change if all the pieces in a complex puzzle come together and the Willmar City Council, along with the U.S. General Services Administration and the National Park Service, decide in the end that bringing a historic lighthouse to the city is a bright idea.
“It is a unique opportunity,” Willmar City Councilor Shawn Mueske said. “I would have a lot of questions going forward.”
The General Services Administration is offering the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Outer Light, first established in 1901 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, at no cost to eligible entities, which includes federal, state and local agencies, nonprofits, educational agencies or community development organizations. The lighthouse can then be used for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes.
The structure has been deemed excess to the needs of the United States Coast Guard, according to the notice of availability.
Councilor Andrew Plowman first brought up the idea of the lighthouse coming to Willmar earlier this summer, after he read a news story about how the General Services Administration is trying to find a new home for the Duluth lighthouse, which is currently located at the end of a pier of the Duluth Harbor Ship Canal on Lake Superior.
“Right away, it piqued my interest,” Plowman said.
At Monday’s council meeting Plowman brought the issue back to the council, this time to see if the council would be open to the city sending a letter of interest to get more information on the lighthouse and to see if the governmental agencies involved even feel Willmar would be a good option.
“I think it’s an excellent idea to gather some more information and start putting the list together of what they need from us and to start asking the right questions,” Plowman said, which includes maintenance requirements and costs associated with keeping the structure in good form.
The council unanimously approved a motion to send the letter of interest.
“This is an interest application. It doesn’t mean we are purchasing a lighthouse at this time,” Mueske said.
Mayor Marv Calvin said he has had a few meetings with community members about the lighthouse and the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is drafting the letter of interest, which the council will be able to review before it is signed and sent to the General Services Administration.
“There are a number of people in the community that are willing to sign on the letter as well. We will have a very favorable letter being sent from the city of Willmar, with a lot of partners already identified,” Calvin said.
The letter of interest is only the first step in the process, laid out in the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which includes a site visit, a formal application and a decision by the National Parks Service. Even with Willmar’s interest, it does not mean the organizations in current control of the lighthouse will approve of moving the entire brick structure to Willmar. The General Services Administration fact sheet on the property lays out a list of easements to be retained by the United States Coast Guard, including the unrestricted right of the Coast Guard to “keep, locate, service, maintain, operate, repair and replace the ATON.”
The ATON is the aid to navigation, which is the light signal that flashes a fixed green light and a fog signal horn within the lighthouse structure.
The Coast Guard could also decide to move the ATON out of the building altogether, according to the GSA fact sheet.
While it might be a long shot for Willmar to one day see a lighthouse in town, perhaps at Robbins Island, the City Council felt it at least made sense to gather more information, on the off chance such a unique piece of Minnesota’s maritime history could find a new home in the county ‘where the lakes begin.’
“I think it could be a very cool, valuable and iconic item we might be interested in having here in Willmar,” Plowman said.
More information on the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Outer Light can be found at propertydisposal.gsa.gov/LighthouseNotices