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June 7, 2006 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
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Agreement provides for preservation of historic Yerkes Observatory
Proceeds from sale of 45 adjoining acres to support research, Yerkes outreach program

    Yerkes Observatory
Yerkes Observatory
In the News
“Luxury resort in stars for U. of C. observatory”
[Chicago Tribune]
June 8, 2006

Agreement Reached on Yerkes Sale
Sky and Telescope
June 7, 2006

The University of Chicago has reached an agreement to permit Mirbeau Company owner Gary Dower to develop 45 acres of land near the 109-year-old Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisc., in an arrangement that will preserve the observatory and its telescopes as an education center for astronomy. Mirbeau will donate the observatory to the village of Williams Bay, which in turn will enter into a long-term lease with a not-for-profit entity that will operate the observatory.

The agreement would 1) preserve the historic astronomical observatory and 30 acres surrounding it, 2) create a four-acre conservation zone along Geneva Lake, including the entire 522 feet along the shoreline, 3) provide more than $400,000 in annual funding to support the observatory as an education and outreach institution, and 4) provide more than $8 million to support astronomical research at the University. The historic observatory and surrounding land would be owned by an exposition district created by the Village of Williams Bay and directed by a board of scientists, the majority of which would be appointed by the University of Chicago.

The funding for the observatory would be generated by proceeds of the sale and taxes on a 100-room Mirbeau Retreat and 72 small homes that would be built on 45 acres of the property. The arrangement is contingent on approval by the village of Williams Bay for zoning and creation of an exposition district.

Dower’s Mirbeau Inn and Spa in Skaneateles, N.Y. was recently awarded Mobil Four Star and AAA Four Diamond ratings. The development in Williams Bay will follow the lighting guidelines of the International Dark Sky Association and be subject to approval by the University of Chicago.

“Yerkes observatory owns a wonderful place in the history of astronomy,” said University of Chicago President Don Randel. “But modern astronomy long ago moved on, and the University needs to stay focused on what we do best, which is advancing the frontiers of knowledge. This new plan meets all three of our goals for Yerkes. It provides a secure funding stream to preserve it as an outreach facility, it provides resources for future research in astronomy, and it proposes high-quality and environmentally sensitive development.”

Said Angela Olinto, Professor and Chair of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics: “We, in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, are very pleased with the plan to preserve the historical Yerkes Observatory as an active education and public outreach center with the financial help that the Mirbeau agreement makes possible. In addition, funds from the sale will help the University of Chicago strengthen its world leadership in Astronomy and Astrophysics through the development of urgently needed facilities on campus to support our first-rate research program.”

Yerkes observatory contains what was one of the great scientific instruments of the late Victorian age, a 40-inch refracting telescope. For a few years the telescope was the largest in the world, and it is still the largest refracting or lens-based telescope in the world, for the simple reason that larger telescopes cannot be efficiently built with lenses.

Because of great technological advances in telescopes and the relatively cloudy and light-polluted skies over southern Wisconsin, the Yerkes Observatory has for decades been of limited use for research. And because Yerkes is a large and valuable property with substantial maintenance costs, the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics has for several decades been searching for a way to use the observatory that is environmentally sensitive and consistent with its mission of cutting-edge astronomical research.

The faculty has determined that the observatory and telescope can and should make a major contribution as a center for outreach and public education, and they have made a commitment to continue to support and expand that work, and to encourage other educational and cultural institutions to join them in producing programs that will stimulate science education in Williams Bay-area elementary and secondary schools.

The nearly 80 acres of land surrounding the observatory is far more than needed to support its future educational mission, however, so the University has decided to sell some of that property for appropriate use and to use the funds obtained from the sale of the acreage to fund future research in astronomy and astrophysics and also support the observatory’s future use for education.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Mirbeau Retreat would sit a minimum of 150 feet from Geneva Lake, twice the required distance for private homes. In order to maintain the uncrowded ambience of Geneva Lake, boat slips on the lake will not be sold to homeowners in the development, and Mirbeau will not seek to increase the currently allowed number of boat slips or moorings.

Mirbeau would donate to the village of Williams Bay 30 acres containing the observatory building. This parcel contains the key landscaping components of Frederick Law Olmstead’s design for the grounds, including the entrance to the observatory, the Great Ellipse and South Lawn. Williams Bay would then, in turn, create an exposition district, which would enter into a long-term lease with a not-for-profit operating entity.

The operating entity will plan the scientific and educational programs of the observatory and will be administered by a board of directors that is expected to include leading scientists and educators from a variety of Midwestern institutions, most of whom initially would be named by the University of Chicago. Further, the University would continue to manage the observatory for a minimum of five years. During this time the University will continue to provide $300,000 annual for observatory maintenance. The University also will provide an additional $1 million to support the creation of the new Yerkes education and outreach organization.
Last modified at 04:38 PM CST on Friday, June 09, 2006.

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