The University of Chicago recently transferred ownership of Yerkes Observatory and related property to the Yerkes Future Foundation.

Leaders from the university and foundation discussed terms of the agreement in at a Village of Williams Bay Plan Commission meeting in March. The agreement reflects the commitment of both groups to be responsive to the interests of the Williams Bay community, along with the importance of providing a sound foundation for the foundation as it prepares to lead Yerkes into the future.

As part of the transfer, which took place May 1, the university is donating to the foundation the historic observatory campus. That ownership transfer includes the observatory building, the large telescopes and other property on the site.

The university will also make a significant monetary donation of seed funding for the foundation at the time of transfer. This is to be followed by an additional cash donation by the university – drawing on proceeds from the planned sale of three rezoned parcels of university-owned lakefront property – for which the University’s applications were pending with the village.

Foundation formed

A small group of Geneva Lake residents formed the Yerkes Future Foundation in 2018, shortly after the university’s announcement that it would seek a new long-term steward for the observatory. YFF is dedicated to restoring the great, historic observatory as a monument to American achievements in astronomy and as an operating scientific and educational institution capable of carrying Yerkes’ contributions into the future.

“We are a small, community-focused foundation but our ambitions for Yerkes are not only local and regional, but national and international. Thanks to the University of Chicago and its many Yerkes employees and scientists through the years, Yerkes has been well-maintained,” said YFF Chairwoman Dianna Colman,

“Our goals include enhancing the magnificence of its structure, telescopes and grounds to continue its historic tourism appeal, and to maximize its educational and scientific potential as a forward-looking inspiration to generations of young scientific hopefuls,” she added.

David Fithian, who has led the transfer process for the University of Chicago, said having a successor organization dedicated to Yerkes and the community provides an appropriate new chapter for the observatory.

“We are delighted that this process is concluding in a way that brings long-term benefits to the Williams Bay community and future visitors to Yerkes, while serving the future of astronomy and astrophysics research and education at the University of Chicago,” Fithian said.

In addition to YFF’s global outreach, it will also welcome members of the University of Chicago community to continue their distinct connection with Yerkes.

The foundation and the university have agreed to several long-term loans of the University’s astronomical equipment that YFF may use at Yerkes, including the observatory’s large collection of glass plates and several historically significant artifacts.

Along with other visitors from around the world, YFF will welcome University scientists, librarians, and students to continue projects and collaboration at Yerkes in the months and years ahead.

Details on the proposed rezone

As introduced at the Plan Commission meeting, the university is seeking approval on the rezoning of the lakefront property to three residential lots. In making its rezoning proposal, the university listened closely to longstanding community concerns about high-density residential development.

Dividing the lakefront property into three single-family residences is intended to address those concerns while providing important benefits:

  • The three new residential lots will provide an expanded tax base for the Village of Williams Bay;
  • YFF will receive a share from the proceeds of the sale of the rezoned lakefront lots per the Yerkes Observatory donation agreement. Thus, the marketing and sale of the lakefront property will create vital seed funding for YFF’s startup operations and sustained fiscal health, in addition to the University’s initial monetary donation; and
  • The remainder of the proceeds from the sale will help support the future of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, including the University’s major investments in the Magellan and Giant Magellan telescopes in Chile.

Both the university and YFF extended thanks to the Village of Williams Bay for the community’s dedication to Yerkes and its special place in the history and future of the area.

“We are deeply grateful to the Village of Williams Bay and the connection this community has to Yerkes,” Colman said.

“Our hope is to maintain and develop this beautiful and important observatory as a jewel in the crown of this community for generations to come,” she added.


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