Forest Exploration Center in Wauwatosa intent on using Eschweilers

C.T. Kruger
A former administration building is one of four remaining structures designed by Alexander Eschweiler on the Milwaukee County Grounds.
Published on: 1/29/2013

As the city searches for a way to fill a financing gap in plans to restore the Eschweiler buildings, John Gee said this week he is close to an agreement to lease the Eschweilers as a long-term home for the Forest Exploration Center, a charter school under development.

"We have been moving forward on the idea of restoring the Eschweiler buildings for use as the Forest Exploration Center - for our charter school and public education activities," Gee, executive director of the center, said in an email.

Gee said the effort has the support of the city, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Barry Mandel, who leads the development group selected to develop housing in Innovation Park.

Innovation Park and the historic Eschweiler buildings are owned by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Real Estate Foundation.

A "case book" document produced by the center says the lease rate would be a nominal $1 a year.

Center dependent on fundraising

Gee said the school will open in the fall in Research Park's incubator building.

In the meantime he is embarking on a campaign to raise some $15 million toward a total cost of $22.4 million to restore the four Eschweiler buildings, including a $5 million endowment.

The case book projects the use of $2.7 million in federal and state historic tax credits and some low-interest debt.

Early funding includes an annual grant contribution of $140,000 from the state Department of Natural Resources, a federal charter school grant of $175,000 for planning and $400,000 for implementation.

"As far as donors go, we are just now getting into serious discussions," he said.

City Attorney Alan Kesner, who represents Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley on the center's board of directors, said the school's occupation of the Eschweilers "depends on the success of … the fundraising effort done by the Forest Exploration Center, and if there's some success in raising the necessary funds, that process will start. There's been a lot of planning already."

Leasing space

"It's not signed yet," said Foundation President Dave Gilbert, referring to the lease. "We think 30, 60 days, something like that, we should have this thing done."

Gilbert said the school's lease of the buildings was not in conflict with residential development plans.

Another matter to attend to, Gee said, was legislation that would allow the UWM to sponsor the school.

Enrollment has not yet begun, he said.

"We are, however, going to start this summer with an educational program on the county grounds using the FEC forest, for kids from throughout the region."

The forest is a 67-acre piece of property north of the Eschweiler buildings, across Swan Boulevard. The property, owned by the state, is controlled by the FEC under an agreement with the DNR, according to the case book.

No link to Wauwatosa Public Schools

Wauwatosa School Superintendent Phil Ertl, who is identified on the center's web site as a member of the school's planning committee, said he has not been involved with the school "since we informed them that we no longer are interested in participating."

The school will not be a Wauwatosa Public School, he said.

"I think it would be difficult to open this spring."

City Administrator Jim Archambo and Gilbert, among others, appeared Monday in front of a county committee for an update on Innovation Park and the fate of the Eschweiler buildings. Among other topics, Archambo reportedly mentioned a funding gap in efforts to restore the buildings.