FOX 11 Investigates: Mayor says coal pile relocation 'will happen'

GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- It has been talked about for decades: Moving the coal piles from the Fox River in downtown Green Bay. The big question has always been where? And when?

City leaders say they may have found the perfect site and say the time is now.

"I believe it’s going to happen," Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt told FOX 11 Investigates.

Since 1904, the property along the western shore of the Fox River, south of Mason Street, has been home to huge piles of coal. City leaders have been trying to find a new home for the coal piles for years.

"Ultimately, we have to get the coal piles relocated so we can develop the waterfront," Schmitt told FOX 11 shortly after he took office in 2003.

"It's something that's going to happen," he said at the time.

Fifteen years later, Schmitt says the chances are better than they've ever been.

"These windows of opportunities happen once in a while and the stars need to line up and I think we’re at that point right now," he said.

Schmitt says there could finally be a site large enough, with enough dock space, to house the coal piles.

That site is the Pulliam Power Plant near the mouth of the Fox River.

"We’re continuing to evaluate our options as far as the future use and future of the Pulliam Power Plant site," said Matt Cullen, a spokesman for Wisconsin Public Service.

Cullen says this fall, the company is planning to retire its two coal-fired units at the plant. He says WPS is aware of the interest in the site.

"Our main focus right now is to continue to operate the plant safely," Cullen said.

The Pulliam site has been on the radar for a couple of years, not just as a potential home for the coal piles.

Port Director Dean Haen says in a 2016 property acquisition plan, the Harbor Commission identified the site as an ideal location for development.

"This property, if it ever became available, is what you want to call the Holy Grail of port properties. It sits at the deepest part of the port. It sits with highway interconnection. It has rail service. It’s sizeable. It is the best piece of real estate for port purposes that’s out there," Haen said.

When asked if this is the best chance of moving the coal piles in his career, Haen replied, "Well, if nothing else, it may be the last."

"Where are you going to have a piece of real estate become available that in that size? In the three miles of the port area? Basically, from Georgia-Pacific to the bay. There isn’t that type of real estate," he added.

The Pulliam site is more than twice the size of the current coal pile site, which is operated by the C. Reiss Coal Company. Haen is familiar with past discussions about relocating the coal piles before. He says one issue has been the cost.

A government study in 2004 estimated the cost of moving the piles to be $29-million. That included the installation of a dock wall at a new site well as dredging and adding railroad tracks.

"This is a once in a 100-year opportunity," said State Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay). "I think the stars are starting to align for the first time in 50 years. We might be able to make this happen."

While the Pulliam site is different from the 2004 study, Steffen says the cost could still be in that $29-million ballpark.

Who would pay for that? Steffen says state and federal grants would likely be used to help pay for the project. He adds that the benefits of expanding the port operation at the Pulliam site and re-developing the current coal pile site could offset some of the costs.

"Let’s be really clear: there’s money to be made and re-couped in port," Steffen said. "The economic development opportunity that’s provided by moving those coal piles may be unparalleled."

"I feel good about it. The will is there. I believe it's going to happen," Schmitt said.

Schmitt says the opportunity to relocate the coal piles to a better site and re-develop the current property could translate into nearly $200 million in tax base.

"It would transform the downtown and the waterfront significantly," he said.

While the potential is there, the hard work still lies ahead: getting all of the parties involved on the same page.

"We need to have more discussions but everything so far feels right and I think there’s a real willingness to make this happen," Schmitt said.

"Right now, it’s an idea that needs to be explored. So, we’re actively trying to see if it’s a possibility to see this happen," Haen said.

"It’s difficult and you need a lot of dominoes to fall in the right direction," he added.

When asked what he would say to people who have questioned whether this would ever happen, Schmitt replied, "I can appreciate people saying this will never happen. That happens will a lot of stuff I do. Waterfront is never going to happen. Bay Beach is never going to happen. Look, this will happen. It’s just a matter of when. I think the time is now."

As for when this could happen, Schmitt said, "We’re committed to working on this to having an agreement signed under my term. I think that could happen. I think the whole relocation is going to take some time."

He added, "I think we can have that agreement done by the end of the year."

FOX 11 Investigates contacted the parent company of C. Reiss Coal for comment but the company did not get back to us. The mayor says the company is willing to work with city and adds that he feels optimistic.

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