August 7, 2008

State Makes New Bid for Rainbow Springs

By Darryl Enriquez, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Aug. 7--The state is offering to buy the long-failed recreation resort Rainbow Springs for $10.8 million, making it potentially one of the state's most expensive conservation land purchases in southeastern Wisconsin, a state Department of Natural Resources official said Wednesday.

Conservation officials hailed the offer for the 970-acre property as a major boost in preserving the nearly pristine Mukwonago River system, which flows through Rainbow Springs, and a huge recreational playground for Milwaukee-area residents who generally are within an hour's drive of the natural area.

"That whole river corridor is really important," DNR Secretary Matt Frank said. "By adding this land, it gives us a boost to our conservation efforts out there."

Frank said the purchase would open up new outdoor recreation opportunities for southeastern Wisconsin, including the 38-acre Rainbow Springs Lake, a deep and spring-fed lake that feeds into the Mukwonago River and supports rare fish, mussels, aquatic plants and a healthy trout population, a DNR report for the purchase says.

"It's going to provide a host of nature-based opportunities, including hunting and trapping," Frank said.

The state Natural Resources Board will consider the purchase Aug. 13 at its meeting in Platteville. The purchase would be financed through state conservation funds.

If approved by the Resources Board, the initiative must then get approval from the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee and Gov. Jim Doyle. The land has an appraised value of $11.2 million and would become part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest's Southern Unit.

The purchase would prevent the land from being developed as housing, a huge step in preserving the Mukwonago River and its watershed, said Pat Morton, director of the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin's Mukwonago River Watershed Project, in East Troy.

"It's really a key piece of property within the Mukwonago River Complex," Morton said. "It's a very important lake and wetland complex that feeds into the Mukwonago River."

If the sale goes through as planned, the southern portion of Rainbow Springs in Walworth County would be open for hunting this fall, said DNR real estate chief Richard Steffes.

The northern portion in Waukesha County would continue to operate as a golf course for two years. When that provision expires, the links and all affiliated buildings would be removed, and the land restored to its natural state, Steffes said.

Fertilizer now washes into the river from the golf courses, Morton said.

The state began acquisition talks with owner Alan Feker in 2004, shortly after the resort's unfinished hotel was destroyed in 2003 in a spectacular fire, the origin of which remains a mystery.

The resort seemed cursed from its beginnings, in the mid-1960s. Founder Francis Schroedel insisted on the best building and decor materials for what he envisioned as a 756-room opulent hotel with two golf courses and adjoining trout ponds and ski hill.

He was forced to abandon his dream in the late 1960s when he ran out of money. The hotel never opened, and foreclosure followed. He reportedly cursed the development and threatened to haunt the hotel halls before dying in 1975. Mukwonago High School sports teams later used the hotel for Halloween haunted house fund-raisers.

Several owners have come and gone since Schroedel's death. Feker bought the property 13 years ago with his own dream of building condos around the golf courses.

Like Schroedel, Feker experienced setbacks and disappointment.

He faced skeptical Town of Mukwonago officials who had seen Rainbow Springs speculators come and go. Neither Alan Feker nor his brother Michael, who managed the property while operating a Milwaukee restaurant, could work a deal with nearby Mukwonago to get needed sewer service for condos.

The state and Feker had reached a sales agreement last summer, Steffes said. That deal fell apart but came together again this summer, Steffes said.

The Rainbow Springs project, if approved, would be the most expensive conservation purchase in this part of the state. The largest purchase in terms of acreage was about 20 years ago with the acquisition of 1,100 acres for the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest, based in the nearby Town of Eagle.


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