Trout Museum explores expanding to Ellen Kort Peace Park

Sign near Ellen Kort Peace Park protests the proposed plan. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

Mar. 3, 2023 Update:

The Trout Museum of Art announced on Wednesday, Mar. 1, that they will no longer consider expanding the museum to Ellen Kort Peace Park. Executive Director of the Trout Museum of Art Christina Turner said that the Environmental Site Assessment conducted at the park revealed that the cost of cleaning up the site and preparing it for the potential move was too high. 

“We…look forward to finding a more feasible location that will excite our community,” Turner said. 

Ellen Kort Peace Park, located just west of the Oneida Skyline Bridge, has been a site of controversy in recent months. The Trout Museum of Art has been looking into building on the land of the park and opening a new site for the museum on the waterfront. The park is named after the late poet and artist Ellen Kort (1936-2015), who served as Wisconsin’s first Poet Laureate from 2000 to 2004.  

On Oct. 5, the Appleton Common Council voted 8-7 to allow the Trout Museum to survey the land and see if building the museum there would be possible. Alderpersons Nate Wolff (District 12), Chris Croatt (District 14), Assistant Professor of Biology Israel Del Toro (District 4), Chad Doran (District 15), Sheri Hartzheim (District 13), Alex Schultz (District 9), Joss Thyssen (District 8) and Katie Van Zeeland (District 5) voted to allow the process to continue, while Alderpersons Vered Meltzer ‘04 (District 2), Kris Alfheim (District 11), Denise Fenton (District 6), Brad Firkus (District 3), Vaya Lauren Jones (District 10), Bill Siebers (District 1) and Maiyoua Thao (District 7) voted no. The park, as well as Lawrence University, are in Alfheim’s district.  

On Dec. 2, Kort’s children  — Kerry Kort Williamsen, Cindy Kort, Jayme Bleick Baehnman and Denise Krueger — wrote an open letter to Mayor Jake Woodford ‘13, the members of the Common Council and the Trout Museum directors that was published in The Appleton Post-Crescent opposing the construction. They remembered their mother as someone who brought positivity to her community, sacrificed for others, encouraged and valued people and cared deeply for the Fox River, where the park is located. They said that the park was intended to allow greenspace access to the river and called the idea of moving the museum “a grave mistake.” They pointed out that parks are open spaces that are free from admission fees and don’t close and lock their doors.  

Ellen Kort Peace Park’s sign covered in snow and ice. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

“This park was supposed to be a passive park,” said Williamsen. “A place to go for healing, for connecting with nature, to be a quiet park. It’s not like any park we have in our city. That’s what was very exciting about this to our family.” 

Community members who oppose the acquisition came to the Common Council meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15 to express their opinion. Woodford provided an update at the meeting, saying that the museum is conducting a site analysis, which includes an environmental assessment. Along with providing an update, he encouraged the community to treat each other with kindness and respect on the issue despite disagreements. No public comments or questions were allowed on the issue. Although public comment was not allowed, members of the community were provided with an opportunity to speak to The Lawrentian.  

Keith Powell, a Horn Instructor at the Lawrence University Community Music School, said that he thinks the location is bad for a museum because Water Street is too narrow to support more traffic. He feels that a park next to the river is an asset for the region that shouldn’t be taken away, and that putting the museum there will take away public river access. His wife, Music Librarian and Associate Professor Antoinette Powell, characterized this as a sweetheart deal between the city and the museum, and doesn’t want to see the city turn over riverfront greenspace to a private entity. 

Former Alderperson Margaret Mann said that she is a big supporter of the park and was one of the alderpersons that brought forward the resolution to name the park after Kort. She said that the city wanted to put money towards developing a professional plan for the park and has proceeded with some elements, but that the city doesn’t have the funds to finish it. She doesn’t feel that the Trout Museum has the right to develop anything on this park since it is identified as a neighborhood park and a greenspace. She said that she loves the Trout Museum. but she wants them to find a different spot and doesn’t feel that this development will help the museum anyway. Babs Smith, who also attended the meeting, agreed that it’s important to support the Trout Museum, but not in this specific location.  

Schultz believes that the park would still be able to exist largely as it is, even if the acquisition were to happen. He said that only about 10-15% of the current land belonging to Ellen Kort Peace Park would be used to build the museum, and that the addition of an arts center near the park would make it a more active park. He feels that the Trout Museum is part of a community arts organization and has been a nonprofit for many years. He added that the programs put on by the museum might even be free to Appleton or Fox Valley residents and membership is currently only $5.  

Sign near Ellen Kort Peace Park protests the proposed plan. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

Meltzer and Alfheim said that they do not support the project because their constituents are opposed to it, and Meltzer added that he doesn’t feel that it’s respectful to the community to drag the process out. Del Toro, who voted to allow the project to be considered in October, plans to vote no at the next vote because he said his constituents have come out in opposition to it. Siebers said that he was initially interested but voted no in October because of a lack of information about, and community support for, the project.  

“My second vote was a no based on the lack of information and the growing number of people opposing it, and I don’t see that vote changing at this point in time,” Siebers said.  

Fenton, who voted no, and Van Zeeland, who voted yes, both commented that the vote was not to build the museum in the park. Van Zeeland said that the vote in October was to allow city staff to meet with members of the Trout Museum, approve a process map and survey the site to investigate if the project is feasible.  Fenton pointed out that the museum is currently conducting an environmental survey, and that the survey might show that the museum can’t be built there anyway.  

Wolff, who chairs the Parks and Recreation Committee, is a supporter of the idea, but he noted that Trout Museum is exploring its options and is just keeping the idea on the table. He characterized the opposition as “a few vocal people” instead of hundreds, and said that out of 29 constituents he talked to, 25 were supporters of the idea, and the remainder were against it. He stated that the argument against the development of the museum because a parking lot would be built there doesn’t make sense because a parking lot was in the original plan for the park’s development anyway. He said that there are valid reasons why people are against it, but if he gets enough information on the park and his constituents continue to express support for it, he will vote for it.

Regardless of their votes, some alderpersons echoed Woodford’s comments about the discourse about the project and want to support both the park and the museum.