This digital rendering shows a night view of the proposed WaterLIGHT installation as it would appear from Village Hall Park along the Fox River. The proposal features 10-foot-long illuminated tubes suspended over the river. (Submitted graphic)

Leader of public art proposal seeks village funding

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

The leader of the proposed Waterford WaterLIGHT project said he needs the village to support the project financially or risk it falling apart. But local officials say they need a lot more information before they can even consider such a proposal.

Former Village President and current County Board member Tom Roanhouse, who is spearheading the project, said last week he’s on the verge of securing $300,000 in grants and donations for the project, but a third of that amount would be contingent on the village also supporting the project financially.

“My point is that you mean the village does not want to spend less than $50,000 to get more than $300,000 free?” Roanhouse said. “Are you kidding me?”

Village officials, however, said they haven’t even been formally asked to contribute financially beyond staff time that was dedicated to preparing grant proposals.

“There’s a few roadblocks he (Roanhouse) has got to clear” before the Village Board could even consider contributing, current Village President Don Huston said. “At this point, he’s got a lot of homework to do.”

What is WaterLIGHT?

As conceived, the public art installation dubbed WaterLIGHT has the potential to make Waterford a destination for visitors, according to Roanhouse. The idea, he said, is to create a “wow effect” that will set the village apart and help spur economic development.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture working in conjunction with proponents of the project developed a prototype for an installation that would call attention to the village and, more specifically, the Fox River.

Renderings of the proposal show a series of illuminated tubes suspended by cables over the Fox River immediately north of the Main Street Bridge and adjacent to the Waterford Library.

A summary of the project prepared by members of the project team led by Mo Zell, associate professor for the School of Architecture, describes the clusters of 10-foot-long, 10-inch-wide tubes as resembling grass reeds that have been bundled in the middle.

Roanhouse said the display would be so impressive that visitors to Milwaukee would be willing to hire and Uber just to drive them out to Waterford to see the WaterLIGHT array.

The funding puzzle

With input from a team that, in addition to the UWM School of Architecture, includes the president of the Racine Arts Council and the director of the Racine Art Museum, according to Roanhouse, the group wrote an application for an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts seeking up to $200,000 in matching funds for the project.

Roanhouse said he is confident the project will receive the matching grant and anticipates a formal announcement from the NEA in April.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $400,000. An additional $100,000, according to Roanhouse, would come from a currently anonymous benefactor. Another estimated $50,000 of in-kind labor and expertise would qualify for the matching funds, leaving roughly $50,000 remaining to be raised. That’s the amount Roanhouse would like to see the village provide.

He concedes that he initially told village officials all the funds would be raised privately. Since then, however, Roanhouse said he has learned the $100,000 donation would be contingent on the village also contributing to the project.

He said he believes the project is too good for the village to pass up and its benefits in notoriety and economic stimulus would far exceed the $50,000 of taxpayer funds.

Village response

At least two village officials have said they support the project in concept, but it needs to come a long way before they’d even discuss the possibility of committing public funds.

Village Administrator Zeke Jackson said he was under the impression that Roanhouse would return to the Village Board with a formal presentation or at least an update before making the case for public funding.

He said the village can’t do anything until a “proposal comes forward and it’s evaluated on the merits of the request.”

He said most members of the Village Board and staff are under the impression that the goal still is to pay for the project entirely with donated funds.

Both Jackson and Huston also mentioned legal and logistical challenges that must be solved before the project could move forward. Among them is obtaining an easement for the installation of the cables on the east side of the Fox River opposite the library.

Other factors include how to handle the cost of maintenance and electrical use, they said.

Roanhouse said he has had preliminary discussions with a donor who has offered to provide $50,000 over 10 years to cover those costs.

Both Huston and Jackson, however, said they perceive very little support within the village for spending tax dollars on public art installations.

Jackson pointed to a 2018 survey of village residents showing a strong majority opposing just such expenditures.

Huston expressed similar sentiment.

“At this point I don’t see the public support,” he said. “(Roanhouse) needs to show where the investment is going to pay off for the village.”

The lynchpin will be whether the project is awarded the $200,000 matching grant from the NEA. Without it, the project is dead, Roanhouse said.

However, if the grant comes through it’ll be up to the Village Board to “figure out how to reel that in,” he said.