Up in the air
Nearly a decade ago, Oneida County made a $520,000 decision that some believe, in hindsight, was a mistake. That decision was the purchase of the Heal Creek Property near Northwood Golf Course.
A 272-acre area featuring heavily logged forest and prominent wetlands, the county discovered too late that the land they bought for industrial growth is near impossible to build on.
Now, an opportunity has come around for that mistake to be rectified. But once again a decision is before the County Board—a decision that will invariably affect this community for years to come.
Three proposals, from two sources, have been submitted to the county as remedies for the community sore-spot.
City of Rhinelander and Town of Crescent joint proposal
The proposal put forward by Rhinelander and Crescent was described by its creator, Joel Knutson, Crescent town supervisor, as “what amounts to a government-to-government transfer… two governments, private businesses, multiple landowners, trail groups and clubs all coming together with a common vision.”
The Town of Crescent will pay $10,000 for the Heal Creek area only, excluding the eighty acres south of the Oldenburg property. In addition, the City of Rhinelander will exchange a 40-acre parcel to the county.
Knutson’s plan is to create a year-round outdoor recreational facility centered around the Northwood Golf Course. It will involve creating new trails through the Heal Creek property, and joining them to the golf course by going through neighboring private lands.
“Most golf courses are purposed for only one thing,” Knutson said. “For the city and town’s perspective, that’s a limitation based on the property divisions, it’s not a limitation based on what we’d like to do.”
“We’re keying off existing infrastructure to create a space and series of trails that is just a huge community resource, that takes advantage of the fact that there are already these resources out there, but they’re not tied together in a meaningful, year-round way,” Knutson said. “I think there’s a strong economic development argument to be made for it; I think there’s a strong tourism argument to be made for it.”
Another aspect of the proposal is an idea to turn the clubhouse into a chalet for the winter season, giving winter users a place to rest and socialize. Knutson believes the chalet will eliminate a lot of the trepidation of going out for cold-weather activities.
Dave O’Melia, who runs the golf course and clubhouse, is already on board with the idea, and they will be throwing an open house to give people a preview of their vision on Feb. 7.
Hodag Sports Club proposals
The Hodag Sports Club is situated on a property just to the east of Heal Creek. Five rifle ranges sit on that parcel, and their goal in purchasing this property is to “assure the long range viability of the Clubs’ rifle/pistol range,” according to their written proposal.
“[The Club] is really about the only place that people can go and shoot a rifle or a pistol in the area,” said Virgil Davis, of the Club’s board of directors. “And our reason for buying it is that if we own the land around it, then they can’t complain about [the noise].”
It’s a cash only, no conditions offer. The Club will pay $281,123 for the whole property, with the plan of placing it under Managed Forest Land, a DNR program. Placing it in MFL gives the non-profit organization certain tax benefits, with the long-term goal of harvesting timber on the property.
They have committed to leaving the main property, the area that Heal Creek actually runs through, in MFL Open, which means it would be accessible to the public for hiking, hunting, fishing and gathering. However, the Club said they plan to leave the property as-is, and no trails or enhancements will be made as part of their proposal.
There were actually two proposals submitted by the Club, one for the property as a whole, but in light of the Rhinelander/Crescent proposal, they drafted a secondary bid for the eastern eighty acres, below the Oldenburg property. The same conditions as the former proposal apply, with a smaller cash offering of $82,123. They have not decided if that section will be placed in MFL Open.
“We have a pretty long-established policy that we’ll purchase any adjacent lands to either of our ranges. So, it was kind of a policy that has been in place for a long time,” Davis said.
Beyond the proposal
Outside parties have also put their two cents in on the topic. The Town of Minocqua submitted a resolution to the county, requesting that the county take a cash offer, in an effort to recover the financial loss of the original transaction.
“Our feeling is the county board chose to buy the property, using tax dollars, for a specific purpose… now that original plan has fallen through. They will probably never get that money back completely,” said Mark Hartzheim, town chairman of Minocqua. “Our feeling is the county should take whatever action it can to recoup that money as best they can… We didn’t want a proposal to be considered that would keep the property off the tax rolls.”
Knutson disagrees. “If the county gets $100,000, there will be no appreciable benefit for taxpayers… It seems like a lot to taxpayers, but when the county spends money, they spend a lot more than that… $100,000 doesn’t go far for a government.”
His argument is that the recreational facility could bring in more revenue annually in tourism and users from neighboring areas than the limited property taxes on the land would bring in the hands of the Hodag Sports Club. Not only in direct funds and sales tax from the chalet, but just by bringing more people into the community.
“They have kind of a little different plan, and we told them that if we’re the successful purchaser on it, if they want to put cross-country ski trails in there or whatever they want to do, we can certainly work with them on that,” Davis said. “So it’s not like we’re going to put signs up around it and say ‘stay the heck out.’ That’s not the way the club operates.”
“To achieve these goals I’ll work with whomever,” Knutson said. “But it has to be said that it changes the landscape dramatically.”
The Rhinelander/Crescent proposal is to get the property under state stewardship laws, and work out preservation commitments with private landowners. Knutson also wants to work with timber companies, and use the land for training, or with schools to use the land as an educational opportunity.
Many of these plans have been in the works for over a year, but Knutson said he can’t guarantee the same enthusiasm from third parties if the deal changes.
“The landowners, private organizations, that have been interested in the stewardship aspect of it… in the narrative that the stewardship is off, I don’t think any of the additional partners would still be on board,” Knutson said.
“I hope we get something collaborating with the sports club,” Knutson said. “I’d love to put something together with the Sports Club to combine shooting and outdoor sports, and I hope they get that eighty and it works out for them. I just think that the competition that they’ve entered for the whole is unnecessary and counter-productive, and I hope it kind of falls away.”
“The public doesn’t get a lot of opportunities [like this]. When governments say ‘we’re trying to accomplish big things, it’s usually, ‘we’re going to.’” Knutson said. “They can do this right now. Right now! …We’ll already have snowshoeing and back-country skiing accessibility yet this winter. And I think we’d be able to open up some beginner mountain bike trails and hiking this summer. It’s not a 5 to 10 year plan that we hope for, these are things that we know.”