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Duluth lighthouse unlikely to move, despite Willmar's interest

The Willmar City Council submitted a letter of interest this week to move the lighthouse to their landlocked burg in west-central Minnesota. The General Services Administration announced this summer it is looking to offload the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater lighthouse. Forum News Service file photo

DULUTH—The city of Willmar, Minn., is interested in relocating a Duluth lighthouse to the landlocked shores of Willmar Lake or Foot Lake — a 200-mile inland voyage from its current location.

But that's just not possible. The Duluth Harbor South Breakwater lighthouse, built in 1901, isn't going anywhere, the U.S. General Services Administration confirmed Wednesday, Aug. 8.

"If the lighthouse is transferred to a new owner, it will remain in its current location, as it will still be an active aid to navigation," a spokesperson with the GSA, one of the federal agencies overseeing the lighthouse's transfer of ownership, said in an email to the News Tribune Wednesday.

In June, the U.S. Coast Guard made the 44-foot light station available at no cost to eligible entities defined as federal agencies, state and local agencies, nonprofits, educational agencies or community development organizations for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes.

If the station is not transferred to a public body or nonprofit, it will be sold.

The Willmar City Council has entertained the idea of bringing the lighthouse to their city since hearing about the availability in June and unanimously approved a motion to send a letter of interest to the GSA, according to the West Central Tribune.

Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said city councilors heard from two GSA officials that moving the lighthouse was not possible, but a third gave the impression that it was.

"We understand that it's a very, very long shot," Calvin said.

Sending a letter of interest is the first step in a process overseen by the GSA, U.S. Coast Guard and National Park Service. The agencies will then send applications to "eligible entities."

"The three agencies work together to transfer these important assets to qualified new stewards, or make them available through a public auction," the GSA spokesperson said.

Calvin said it's worth Willmar looking into.

"If it doesn't get moved, we understand that, too," Calvin said. "It doesn't cost anything to put the letter of intent in."

Even if Willmar gets the OK to relocate the lighthouse, Calvin said it would be up to the council to determine whether or not to pay for it to move across the state.

While several lighthouses have been moved, most were relocated within a few hundred to a few thousand feet from their original location, where they were threatened by eroding shorelines.

Since the lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Minnesota's State Historic Preservation Office would have to approve any changes or renovations made by the new owner.

Sarah Beimers, an environmental review program manager for the State Historic Preservation Office, will receive a copy of any letter of interest.

When reached by phone Wednesday morning, Beimers said part of what makes a building historic is its location, which often provides crucial context.

The South Breakwater lighthouse's location at the end of the breakwater, along the Duluth Ship Canal and in Lake Superior, is key to its historic significance. Moving it a long distance would risk losing its status on the National Register of Historic Places, Beimers said.

"Taking it out of context would be wrong," Beimers said.

When asked if Willmar would still be interested in relocating the lighthouse if it meant losing its historic status, Calvin said, "That would be up to the council at that time if they chose to go that direction or not. We haven't talked about that part to know what that answer is."

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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