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University announces donation of Yerkes Observatory to private foundation
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University announces donation of Yerkes Observatory to private foundation

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Yerkes Observatory, shown in this aerial image high above Williams Bay, has been closed to the public since October 2018, after more than a century of scientific research and education. 

WILLIAMS BAY — The University of Chicago today announced that the university is donating its historic Yerkes Observatory and 50 acres of surrounding property to a nonprofit foundation.

David Fithian, executive vice president of the university, told an audience at Williams Bay High School that a donation agreement was signed Feb. 25 to make the former observatory and most of its contents a gift to the Yerkes Future Foundation.

Fithian thanked the foundation and the village of Williams Bay for efforts to ensure that the former observatory — which the university closed in October 2018 — will be preserved for years to come.

Fithian also thanked the community for being patient during negotiation and planning for the donation, a transaction that he said proved to be more complicated than anticipated.

“By virtue of having not heard from us for a very long time, you probably thought not much has been happening," he said. "In truth, a lot has been happening over these 24 months to get us here tonight.”

The university made its announcement before more than 100 people packed into the high school auditorium for a village plan commission meeting.

The private foundation has submitted a request to the village for permits related to its plans for resurrecting the former scientific research and education facility.

The foundation was created by area civic and business leaders with the intention of gaining control of Yerkes Observatory and reopening it to the public. The university closed the observatory after more than 120 years, saying the facility no longer served a useful purpose for scientific exploration.

Dianna Colman, chairwoman of the Yerkes Future Foundation, attended the university's announcement and said that her foundation would begin fundraising aggressively to finance its objective of maintaining the observatory.

“We’ve started to develop a tight, short list of benefactors who are not in this area," Colman said. "They are people who reached out to us and expressed an interest in the observatory or in astronomy in general, and want to help.”

Members of the audience greeted the announcement with applause, but the plan commission did not allow public questions or comments.

The observatory sits on about 70 acres of prime lakefront real estate.

Fifthian said some lakefront acreage has been sold and more will be sold for residential development. Part of the proceeds from land sales will go back to the Yerkes Future Foundation to assist in operating and refurbishing costs for the observatory.

He added that the university hopes to have the properties sold by early May.

The foundation is seeking village approval of two permits — one for construction of additional parking spaces and the other a conditional use permit that would allow mixed use buildings on the Yerkes campus. The property will maintain it's current zoning classification for parks and institutions. 

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