WILLIAMS BAY — The owner of Yerkes Observatory has announced an agreement to transfer the lakefront landmark to a private foundation that promises to reopen the facility for public usage.
The University of Chicago said Nov. 5 it had reached “an agreement in principle” with the Yerkes Future Foundation to take over ownership and maintenance of the observatory.
The foundation is a nonprofit group that was organized to resurrect Yerkes Observatory after the University of Chicago last year announced that the Williams Bay research and educational center would be closed.
Williams Bay Village President Bill Duncan called the announcement a positive new development, considering that Yerkes has been closed and has faced an uncertain future for more than a year.
“It’s what we’ve been working for,” Duncan said.
Representatives of both the university and the foundation declined to disclose terms of the agreement, including whether the observatory would be sold or donated to the private group, and whether the deal involves about 70 acres of surrounding real estate.
Dianna Colman, chairman of the foundation, said the agreement represents the culmination of 18 months worth of work and negotiation regarding the future of the historic observatory.
“It is good news,” Colman said. “We’re at a point where we can really start moving things forward.”
Officials said it could take months to work out the remaining terms of the deal.
University of Chicago spokesman Jeremy Manier declined to comment.
The university in October 2018 closed Yerkes Observatory after more than 120 years, saying that the onetime cutting-edge astronomical research center no longer served a useful purpose.
Community leaders in the Lake Geneva region were devastated by the closure, and the Yerkes Future Foundation organized in response. In addition to Colman, a retired school employee, the foundation has included attorney Frank Bonifacic, college administrator Ted Parge, physician Ann Callison, investment manager Tom Nickols, retired marketing executive Chuck Ebeling, former banker Robert Klockars and business owner Spencer Weber.
Ebeling said although there is still work to be done in finalizing the transfer-of-ownership agreement, he expressed confidence about the future.
“Personally, I think YFF and the community can be very hopeful at this juncture that Yerkes will be training its powerful, historic eyes on the universe again before too long,” Ebeling said.
Kate Meredith, a former Yerkes staffer who now leads an off-site astronomy group, said the nonprofit foundation is the best hope for reviving the observatory as a place for public learning and enjoying.
Meredith pointed out that the foundation’s leaders are all local people who are committed to the community.
“It’s the only way to truly ensure that it’s safe for future generations,” she said of the observatory.
In a joint announcement Nov. 5, the university and foundation announced an agreement in principle to transfer ownership of Yerkes along with “related property.” Both sides said they would continue working for several months on “all aspects of the proposed transfer.”
A copy of the agreement was not released.
The announcement said the private foundation’s plans include restoration and refurbishing of the observatory and telescopes inside, and reopening of the facility for visitors, education and research.
The transfer, if completed, would mark the end of the university’s involvement with Yerkes, the announcement said.
Although Colman declined to comment on details of the agreement, she said her foundation has no plans to sell Yerkes.
“We want to preserve it,” she said. “We want to take care of it.”
Last year, the foundation announced that it was seeking volunteers and that it hoped to raise at least $10 million in donations to support its efforts.
The group in April was awarded nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service.
The University of Chicago has declined to either identify other potential suitors that might have shown an interest in Yerkes, or to describe the process that university officials used to evaluate the Yerkes Future Foundation.
Duncan, who said village officials have been kept informed about the negotiations, said he believes the foundation has the ability to raise funds, if needed, to achieve its objectives.
“They’re a very good group,” he said. “It’s an excellent group to be taking over.”
Meredith said she, too, is confident the foundation can deliver what it has promised without needing taxpayer support.
Colman said the foundation has not reported any income to the IRS. Other details will have to wait, she said, noting that she has signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of the negotiations with the university.
Colman said she was sorry she could not provide more information.
“I hate to be this way,” she said, “but it’s the way it has to happen.”