Who should own Yerkes?

Posted by Anonymous
on Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Nineteenth-century refractors employed
high magnifications. Astronomers observing
with the 40-inch telescope at Yerkes
Observatory typically used in magnification
higher than 400x. Ernie Mastroianni

Last week, the University of Chicago announced the formation of a committee to find alternatives for selling the historic Yerkes Observatory. This all but kills the university's intent-to-sell agreement with Mirbeau Corporation. The New York-based hotelier wanted to open a spa and resort and build more than 70 homes on Yerkes' property.

Amateur astronomers cried foul, believing the new homes and 100-room hotel near Yerkes would devastate the night sky above the observatory, render outreach programs useless, and take away from its historic significance.

Overall, the proposal never really had a chance. To accommodate a hotel and new homes, the Yerkes property would have to be rezoned from institutional to commercial and residential. The longtime residents of the Lake Geneva community told their local government, loud and clear, "No way!" Considering the consequences that accompany betrayal of a vocal voting populace, members of the Williams' Bay Village Board know where their bread is buttered. And so you have the impasse.

Typically, committees form when the goal is to accomplish nothing, so here's my solution: The university should turn the facilities and property over to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Through state and private donations, the group could preserve the facilities and surrounding acreage as a state park and historic site. After all, Yerkes is home to the world's largest refracting telescope. And Einstein didn't come to Wisconsin in 1921 because he enjoyed artery-clogging brats and a perpetual winter — he came to see Yerkes.

You know, with a protected Yerkes site, Spaceport Sheboygan, and, of course, the world's best-selling astronomy magazine all calling Wisconsin home, the state should drop "America's Dairyland" as a nickname, and go for the more appropriate "America's Astronomyland."

Texas can keep its Johnson Space Center. Arizona's Lowell Observatory — who cares? Pristine, dark skies of New Mexico? Overrated.

Astro-minded folks will make Wisconsin their vacation destination. 

You want some of this, California? You and your JPL, Griffith Observatory, RTMC Astronomy Expo, and Sidewalk Astronomers. That's what I thought. Whose cows are happy now?

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