Yerkes Observatory file photo by Phil

University of Chicago administrators have sought a community dialogue on the future of the Yerkes Observatory property in Williams Bay. (File photo/Regional News)

WILLIAMS BAY — A civic-minded group has created a foundation with the goal of raising at least $10 million for an endowment to keep Yerkes Observatory functioning.

Known as the Yerkes Future Foundation, the group includes a combination of business and civic leaders who hope to operate the soon-to-be-closed observatory as a local tourist attraction and science education center.

The foundation’s seven founding members hope to grow their ranks quickly, and to engage the University of Chicago in a dialogue about the future of the 120-year-old property in Williams Bay.

The group has announced a community meeting open to the public at 7 p.m. May 14 at George Williams College campus to get more people involved in the grass-roots effort.

“The concept is that this is not to be secretive, but this is for everybody,” said Dianna Colman, who is chairwoman of the foundation. “This is all about preserving the identity of the village.”

The group has already filed an expression of interest with the University of Chicago and received a confirmation.

The proposal has not been released, but a University of Chicago spokesman said the owners of Yerkes Observatory will gladly speak with anyone interested in the property.

“At this stage, the university expects to have confidential conversations with interested parties,” spokesman Jeremy Manier said. “The university will share more information with the village and others as the process unfolds.”

Colman said an administrator of the university acknowledged her foundation’s show of interest.

“We got a very short, very nice phone call, saying, ‘We got your letter, and we’re very interested,’” she said.

The University of Chicago on March 7 announced that it will be closing Yerkes Observatory by October, moving staffing and programs to Chicago and ceasing operations at the observatory.

The university has not announced specific plans for the property, but has offered to work with Williams Bay area officials to consider future possibilities for the 77-acre site overlooking Geneva Lake.

The observatory has been a fixture in Williams Bay for generations, and its planned closure has been a shock to the community.

University officials plan their own public meeting for 5:30 p.m. May 18 at Williams Bay High School to invite public discussion about the observatory.

Colman said she would like to see the Yerkes Future Foundation and its supporters go into that meeting “as a cohesive group.”

Colman, a retired school admissions director who lives in the town of Linn, is a former chairwoman of the board at Holiday Home Camp, as well as a member of the Lake Geneva Garden Club and a board member for the Rock Central music school in Lake Geneva.

The foundation concept to save Yerkes grew out of a meeting at the Geneva Lake Museum in Lake Geneva.

“It was a meeting of people who knew the lay of the land,” Colman said.

Other founding members include Chuck Ebeling, Bob Klockars, Larry Larkin, Ted Parge, Ann Callison and Frank Bonifacic.

Ebeling said the core group represent 15 to 20 community organizations.

“We represent a broad swath of the community,” he said.

A former McDonald’s Corp. vice president, Ebeling is a member of the Geneva Lake Conservancy board of directors, is president of the Environmental Education Foundation and is on the Geneva Lake Museum board.

Klockars, who is president and CEO of PolyPail Inc. in Delavan, is a member of the Geneva Lake Conservancy, the Geneva Lake Association and the Walworth-Fontana Rotary Club.

Klockars lives in Fontana.

“Obviously Yerkes is a rich resource to Williams Bay, as well as a historic part of the entire community,” he said. “The identity of the community has been wrapped around Yerkes for many years.”

According to a statement released by the Yerkes Future Foundation, the group’s goals are “to preserve the historic features of both the observatory building and the site, and at the same time make the facility open to the public, available for youth development and continuing education as a science center.”

The group sent its expression of interest to the University of Chicago on May 1.

Representatives of the group have said nothing about trying to buy Yerkes — only to keep it functional after the university ceases operations.

The foundation aims to raise between $10 million and $15 million for an endowment to preserve and operate the former scientific facility.

Where that money would come from is not a question that needs to be answered now, Ebeling said.

“It’s premature to discuss fundraising,” he said.

When fundraising starts, Ebeling hopes it will be through a mixture of small donations from residents and large donations from interested agencies, corporations and others.

“It will require support from multiple sources,” he said.

Colman said the foundation has had no communication with the Williams Bay Village Board because village trustees should not get directly involved with any group that might come before them later for a zoning change or permit for Yerkes.

Chris Schultz has been a reporter for more than 40 years. He has been with the Lake Geneva Regional since 2010. He covers the Lake Geneva City Council and the Lake Geneva area schools.