October 25, 2008

Boo at the Zoo: Animals, kids, superheroes

Saturday was a day for kids at the Zoo, as the animals revived a long-lost Halloween tradition, Boo at the Zoo. Animals who didn't mind the cold came out to greet superheroes, butterflies and kids in a host of costumes, who enjoyed safe trick or treating, crafts and meeting four-legged and web-footed friends.

October 23, 2008

Clean Wisconsin, Nurses PAC endorse Flashinski

Clean Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Nurses Political Action Committee both endorsed Democrat Linda Flashinski this week, in her race to unseat Robin Vos, R-Racine, as State Representative in the 63rd Assembly District.

The Wisconsin Nurses stated they “promote candidates for public office who have demonstrated responsible awareness of nurses’ needs and the health needs of Wisconsin citizens.” They “see first hand the detrimental effects of sky-rocketing healthcare costs” and “look forward to working with (Linda) to improve the health of our state.”

Clean Wisconsin joined other environmental groups in endorsing Flashinski, based on her “commitment to work toward state policies that will protect Wisconsin’s precious natural resources and public health while promoting the creation of green collar jobs.”

Previously, Flashinski was endorsed by: Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters (for her “strong support of conservation” and her “commitment to Wisconsin’s natural resources”), Sierra Club (for her “strong support for the environment” and her “proven track record in environmental issues”), Wisconsin Education Association, Racine Firefighters Local 321, Executive Board of the Retired Firefighters, Wisconsin Social Workers PAC of the National Association of Social Workers (“for sharing the concerns that affect human well-being”), Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Progressive Majority (for her “strong support of a multi-issue progressive agenda” and “the commitment (she) has demonstrated to (her) campaign”), Racine County Labor Council AFL-CIO, Racine Education Association, Kenosha Education Association, Racine Labor Coalition, AFSCME Local 67, CWA 4611, IBEW 430, Teamsters 43, AFSCME People, AFSCME County People Committee, AFSCME Local 67 A, AFSCME Sub Chapter 133, UAW Southeastern Wisconsin Area Cap Council, and UAW Wisconsin State Area Cap Council.

Linda states, “I am tremendously honored by these endorsements and feel they reflect a real need for change at the Assembly level in Wisconsin. From labor to education to health care professionals to municipal workers to environmentalists to citizens, these endorsements say that it is time for new directions that focus once again on the needs of people. It is time that we strengthen the economy, jobs, education, energy policy, the environment, small business, and quality of life issues for the citizens of our state.”

Downtown's retailers offer extended holiday hours

Downtown Racine's shops continue to work together to promote downtown as a retail marketplace, as a "destination for shoppers," in the words of Dorothy Ward, owner of Molly MaGruder.

Twenty-three downtown retailers joined the Shops of Downtown Racine co-op, which is advertising downtown jointly, and planning events to improve the retail experience on Main and Sixth Streets. Soon, all of them will fly a specially-designed flag out front to designate their membership.

Their next "event" is extended retail hours downtown for the holiday season. The merchants have agreed to stay open until 8 p.m. on both Thursdays and Fridays beginning the day after Thanksgiving, Friday, Nov. 28. In addition, their stores will all be open on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. from Thanksgiving through Dec. 21. DP Wigley, on Wisconsin Avenue, is also a member and will join in the extended hours. Even retailers who have not supported the co-op financially often tag along on extended hours, so shoppers can expect more stores to be open on those occasions.

The co-op implemented extended hours last year, and this year added Thursday's later closing to the mix. The Shops of Downtown Racine co-op also has advertised Racine's retail destination together in the new regional women's monthly magazine, She, published by the Kenosha News, in the tourism guide, Fun in Wisconsin, online and on Time-Warner Cable in southeast Wisconsin. "We're focusing on Racine and Kenosha," says Mary Osterman, who owns Copacetic, "but we hope to reach to the outskirts of Milwaukee eventually."

Ward and Osterman focused on boutiques and shops when they envisioned the co-op -- in part because the art galleries already were organized and running their successful First Fridays and Gallery Nights. Over time, the aims of both groups have merged, and galleries and retailers are encouraged to open in tandem. Ward, who invited merchants to a meeting to discuss the idea of the co-op last year, was pleased that 15 came to that initial session, "and everyone joined."

Osterman points out that every store downtown is family owned -- and, in fact, most shops are run by the business owner himself or herself. "No one has more commitment to the customer than the actual owner," she says. "The owners give customer service to the level of a personal shopper. They also know their product and can answer almost any question about the product. This uniqueness is the major difference that sets us apart from other retail stores."

October 22, 2008

Hope for Republicans in an unlikely place

Democrats are quietly worrying that huge leads in the polls for Barack Obama could effect down-ballot races in the state.

Dems are trying to take control of the state Assembly this fall, but they'll need a surge of support to make up their seven-seat deficit.

Obama looked like a winning ticket, but now that he appears to be in control in Wisconsin, his supporters are focusing on swing states like Indiana and Ohio. The state party is trying to maintain momentum, but that could be tough if Obama continues to roll.

Their hope? The polls tighten between now and Nov. 4. Their reasoning? A McCain resurgence will force Dems to the polls.

If Dems do grab the Assembly and hold the Senate, look for KRM to pass. But don't necessarily expect health-care reform. If Obama is serious about his plan, the state may hang back and let the Feds take the lead on some form of universal health care.

If McCain wins, a Dem-controlled government would probably pass some form of expanded health care for all.

Robert Felner indicted

Robert Felner's roller-coaster of a year -- all downhill almost from the moment he was named chancellor of UW-Parkside in June -- has come to an unpleasant end.

He was indicted today on charges of misusing federal grants, ten counts of mail fraud, money-laundering conspiracy and income-tax evasion.

The 45-page indictment (it's a large .pdf file, so be patient downloading) says that Felner took $1.7 million from the University of Rhode Island and about $576,000 from University of Louisville -- where he was dean of the College of Education and Human Development before his selection as Parkside chancellor -- and attempted to embezzle another $240,000 from the U of L.

Felner, who resigned from the U of L earlier this year, and withdrew from the Parkside position about a week before his scheduled induction into office in August, also allegedly failed to report $1.6 million in income from 2002 to 2007 and allegedly owes $500,000 in federal taxes, Kentucky U.S. Attorney Dave Huber said in a news release.

Details provided by Huber at a press conference this afternoon are reported here, by Jacob Payne of pageonekentucky.com, who has been investigating the Felner case all summer.

Here, too, is the statement issued this afternoon by the president of the University of Louisville, Dr. James Ramsey. He writes, "...The grand jury’s indictment today of former dean Robert Felner confirmed our initial concern of wrongdoing in the management of federal grant funds." Sounds good, but when this story first broke, the university defended Felner. You can find links to previous stories on RacinePost.com in our compilation of The Felner Chronicles. Go here and scroll down a bit.

RoboCall avoidance: Here's the solution...(yeah, right)

RoboCalls got you steaming? Welcome to the club. Here's the solution...

A RacinePost reader -- who says she received three "grossly inaccurate" John McCain RoboCalls today -- sent us the number of the National Do Not Call registry. Call this number -- 1-866-558-5591 -- she said, and your phone number will be removed from the John McCain RoboCall list.

Having received the "terrorist" RoboCall last week, and the "there goes your health care" RoboCall just this morning, I found myself interested, albeit skeptical. The cynic in me warned that the call could lead overseas to put a big fee on my phone bill, some Nigerian scam, doncha know.

Well, I checked the Internets, and although I didn't find the actual number listed, I did find enough stories about the RoboCall Do Not Call list to convince me there is such a thing. In fact, here's a story debunking a John McCain claim that he "invented" the Do Not Call telemarketing registry in 2003. I say it's debunked, since the FTC started work on the registry in 2001. (Al Gore didn't invent the internet, either, but that's another story for another day, boys and girls.)

Here are two more stories about the current wave of RoboCalls, one from the New York Times and the other from the Huffington Post. If so far you've missed the call itself, a link to an audio version of it is here as well.

In any case, I called the number and it certainly appeared to be a RoboCall Do Not Call registry. "Please press "1" to add your number to the do not call list, or stay on the line to leave a message," was all I heard before pressing 1 and terminating the call. You can also register online. Go to https://www.donotcall.gov/ and follow the simple instructions.

Do I expect to avoid future calls? (Barack, this means you, too!) Hey, I wasn't born yesterday. Maybe in some far distant galaxy... The government website says: " Most telemarketers should not call your number once it has been on the registry for 31 days," so a call today will not prevent your phone from ringing during the next two weeks.

Or not at all. In addition to calling the number, I registered through the website, and then used the confirmation feature to ensure that I'd done it correctly. Moments later I received the confirmation email, which stated: "Your phone number with the last four digits xxxx was most recently registered in the National Do Not Call Registry on June 30, 2003. Most telemarketers will be required to stop calling you 31 days from your registration date."

Ah, so much for that!

UPDATE, 4:30 p..m.: I just received a call from Rudy Giuliani! He wanted to warn me that Barack Obama opposes prison sentences for violent criminals. It must've been another RoboCall, because Rudy didn't shut up when I tried to tell him I'm on the NoCall list...

Endorsement by editorial cartoon?

The twisting of Sen. Barack Obama's desire to roll back tax cuts given to the wealthiest Americans took a nasty local tone today, thanks to the editorial "cartoon" in the Journal Times.

If we're going to have a discussion of socialism, shouldn't we be discussing the Secretary of the Treasury's forced nationalization of major U.S. banks? Not to mention the disposition of the rest of the $700 billion of taxpayers' money.

Let's leave this kind of one-sided, half-assed character assassination to attack dogs like Sarah Palin (who, it now turns out, according to a story in the same issue of the Journal Times as the cartoon here, took $21,000 of Alaska's money to bring her children to events around the country that had nothing to do with them) and John McCain's BFF, Joe the plumber (who really isn't one).

Meanwhile, it's interesting (to me, anyway) to wait on tenterhooks for the Journal Times' actual presidential endorsement -- if indeed the newspaper will come clean and make one this year, or just stick to scurrilous editorial cartoons. So far, according to newspaper industry watchdog Editor and Publisher, U.S. newspapers have been coming out for Obama in record numbers: the last count shows 102 endorsements for the Democrat (including such surprises as the Chicago Tribune, which never before in its history backed a Democrat) vs. 32 for Republican John McCain. That one-sidedness is a big change from 2004, when Kerry barely edged Bush, 213 to 205. (Of course, we all know how that turned out.)

If the JT is going to endorse, it had better hurry. (Pssst! The election is in less than two weeks!) The local paper hasn't always been this reticent to declare itself. In 2000, the paper endorsed Al Gore. In 2004 it came out for John Kerry. Well, sort of: the first 11 paragraphs of the endorsement editorial spelled out President Bush's failings; only the last four were a lukewarm Kerry endorsement ("...in all honesty, we were not overly impressed initially...").

Superintendent Shaw handles his first mini-crisis

Racine Unified Superintendent James Shaw is proving adept at his new position. Here's ">his response to the mini-controversy over a textbook including an excerpt from Barack Obama's autobiography:
Shaw told the Racine Unified School Board on Monday that people in his administration made him aware of two parents who had complained about the issue, and a “thoughtful, reflective investigation” of the textbook flap was necessary.


Jeff Weiss, director of curriculum and instruction, will conduct the initial review, and Shaw will issue a follow-up report to the board. Correcting any curriculum issues that violate district policy will be the first priority, Shaw said, followed by disciplinary measures if it’s appropriate.

The emphasis added is mine. Two points:

1. Shaw wasn't condescending. He's taking the parents' concern seriously and promises to address the issue.

2. Someone could get in trouble for this. If district employees violated district policy, it sounds like he's ready to act.

If you're trying to win over a skeptical public, taking their concerns seriously and enforcing existing policy seem like good places to start.

City budget cuts library, maintains police spending

Mayor Becker's 2008 budget is out. The JT's Stephanie Brien reports the equivalent of 5 1/2 jobs will be eliminated.
The mayor maintained all public safety positions, but there are five and a half city positions that the mayor proposed cutting. The mayor proposed eliminating one of four property assessors, one of two electrical inspectors, a half-time parks and recreation mechanic and hours equaling that of three full-time library assistants.
Part of the mayor's plan is to cutback on property assessments to every-other year, which is interesting timing because property values are reportedly falling around the state and country. Becker may be buying the city time by putting off a new assessment next year.

It's also worth noting that an unglamorous job like an electrical inspector seems like an easy target for a budget cut. But I'd be interested to learn more about the inspector's job - and their job in preventing shoddy or dangerous electrical work in homes and apartments.

As for the library, NorthStar Economics, Inc., a respected private economics firm in Wisconsin, completed a study that showed every dollar spent on public libraries led to a $4.06 return on investment. But so goes the city trend: the mayor cuts the library to spend more on police in the hopes of preventing crimes that are basically unpreventable. (Don't forget about the $400,000 police OT referendum in two weeks.)

Brien quotes Becker in her story saying it's the fewest number of jobs he's cut since becoming mayor, and notes salary costs in the police department will be reduced by senior department members retiring. Then there's odd detail:
The police department’s budget includes increased expenses for ammunition, mobile computer wireless costs, fuel and additional equipment.
Ammunition? Let's hope the increase comes from rising material costs, and not forecasts of an increase in need for more bullets.

Burlington bypass opening Thursday

Paul Sloth from the JT reports on the new Burlington bypass opening Thursday. The $50 million project, which is the eastern portion of the bypass, was completed three weeks early. Work on the western portion of the bypass is underway, will cost $100 million and is scheduled to be complete in 2010.

As for the finished project, it's expected to make a significant change to Burlington:
Burlington officials have done what they can to prepare for the opening of the new bypass, which is intended to improve congestion in the city, said City Administrator Kevin Lahner.

The impact on the city, in terms of needed changes, will be minimal, Lahner said, since the majority of the bypass lies outside of the city limits.

“Hopefully, the traffic will be less. The benefit to the city is, it is supposed to reduce traffic by 30 percent when the whole thing is done,” Lahner said. “A significant portion of it is supposed to be large trucks and large trucks have been a problem. The biggest benefit is getting the trucks off our streets downtown.”

While there might be a need for some minor changes in the future, the majority of the work the city has done has been in preparation for the bypass, including turning one-way streets into two-way streets, Lahner said.
For local media wonks out there, Sloth is the JT's new Burlington reporter. He moves west after covering the Racine Unified School Board in recent years. New reporter John Dobberstein takes over the challenging school beat.

October 20, 2008

Retail landscape changing at Regency Mall

Dollar Premium set to open, perhaps today, Regency's newest store

Been to the mall lately?

If not, it's a sure thing that it's changed since your last visit. Regency Mall is missing some of its long-time retailers -- as are hundreds of malls around the country -- and has been scrambling to fill the vacated spaces.

An even dozen new stores are either just open, about to open momentarily or hurriedly remodeling space, planning to be in business by "black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, the day retailers' fiscal year traditionally turns from the red to the black. Some will be permanent mall residents; others are just here for the holidays. And another 80 temporary users will be operating kiosks in the mall's promenade, joining the existing cellphone, gold chain, eyeglass and beauty products stands already there.

Last year, Regency manager Curt Pruit proudly pointed to a 96% occupancy rate for the holiday season, even as he looked forward to Burlington Coat Factory finally filling the entire 80,000 sq. ft. space that at the time was half-filled by Steve and Barry's (the former home of Bergner's, then Prange, then Younkers).

Is the poster prescient ... or just talking about other stores?

Well, Burlington is open. The store "had the highest-grossing opening day of all 18 Burlington Coat Factories opened that day," Sept. 4, according to Pruitt. And Steve and Barry's has moved to another spot in the mall. But a lot has changed. Steve and Barry's in July was said to be on the brink of bankruptcy; in fact, its store has confusing 100 Store Closing Event/Must Make Room for New Inventory posters surrounding its main entrance. By Pruitt's calculations, the mall is now 91% full, and he spends much of his time scrambling to fill space with long-term leases, as well as temporary ones, with local retailers or regional ones.

What's happening here is happening all over. Pruitt says 18 retail chains have closed recently, or are in trouble, "and we have eight of them." Three that have already closed are Linens and Things, Wilson's Leather and D.E.M.O. Steve and Barry's future is questionable, and Mrs. Fields' cookie store is also endangered (although the local franchisee is guaranteeing the lease).

Stories in the financial press have pointed to problems at such mall stalwarts as Zales, Foot Locker, Ann Taylor, Sharper Image, Levitz furniture, Bombay furniture, Fortunoff, Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Domain -- among others, and those stories were written before the current Wall Street meltdown which further turned off the loan spigot. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Circuit City -- not a mall store but free-standing across Green Bay Road -- is considering closing 150 of its 714 U.S. stores to raise cash.

USA Halloween, in Linens and Things' former space

Still, there are all those new stores just opened or about to open at Regency Mall:
  • USA Halloween now occupies the Linens and Things store ... well, for another few weeks.
  • Giant Bookstore will open in November, and is here at least through February. It won't strictly compete with the existing Waldenbooks at the other end of the mall, which focuses on best-sellers.
  • Jim Lobbs' Piano Store will be near Steve and Barry's. He's a returning retailer for the holidays, having done well here last year.
  • Justice for Girls bought Limited Too, and sells apparel for 'tween girls. It also hosts young girls' birthday parties.
  • Gourmet Coffee, relocated to make room for Steve and Barry's, is ready to reopen.
  • Gold's Fruit Smoothies took the place of McSnack, a five-year experiment that McDonald's discontinued.
  • Central Bark, a doggie daycare and spa (honest, I don't make this stuff up), will open Nov. 17 in an outlot store north of Boston Store that used to be an automobile tire and battery store.
  • AiNi, is an Asian boutique and clothing store.
  • Chinese Massage will be providing accupressure and massage services in the mall promenade.
  • Kenosha Visiting Nurses are giving flu shots.
  • Walden Calendar is opening both a store at one end of the mall and a kiosk at the other.
  • Dollar Premium, a dollar-store, is opening this week, perhaps today.
Curt Pruitt going over holiday kiosk placement

When I sat down with Pruitt yesterday, he pulled out what he called a T-chart, a map of the mall showing the location of all the temporary kiosks that will be open during the holiday season. There were more than 80 of them, stretching from one end to the other.

Pruitt has a more ambitious, longer-term goal. Having managed Regency for 21 years, he's now hopeful of getting mall owner CBL Properties -- which owns and manages 86 enclosed malls including the 100-acre Regency site, which includes Target -- to "explore where we're taking Regency Mall." Pruitt points to the success of some upscale stores here -- Talbots, JoS. A. Bank, Victoria's Secret and Limited -- and says he'd like "to get more retailers that cater to that audience, the higher end customers who must go to other shopping centers for their other needs. We get good sales from these stores, but we don't have complementary products." Regency Mall's JC Penney, he says, is the biggest jewelry retailer in the state -- which supports his contention "that we have quality customers here."

Pruitt says he needs to teach other higher end stores about Regency's average customer -- who has about $68,000 average income. "Retailers have a different perception of the Racine market," he says. He'd like to attract Williams Sonoma, for example; or Coldwater Creek. "I know the market would support them," he says.

Think that's ambitious? Pruitt has another idea that will knock your socks off: He'd like to open a year-round water park in the "cavernous" Linens and Things space now seasonally occupied by USA Halloween's costumes and scary decorations ($199 talking ghouls!). "We are literally looking for non-traditional retailers," he says. "We want to create a mall with a distinct personality, which would be a win-win for everyone."

Regency Mall is one of the largest employers in Racine. While mall management itself only employs 30 - 40 people to handle security, maintenance and landscaping, the 100+ mall stores employ upwards of 3,000.

There'll be a lot more kiosks come 'Black Friday'

And what kind of a holiday season will merchants -- mall and otherwise -- have this year? It's anybody's guess, but the experts are pessimistic, given the country's economic woes, people's worries about the status of their jobs and retirement funds. This forecast expects the worst Christmas since 1991. On the other hand, the Journal Times talked to a handful of local retailers last week, who were cautiously optimistic.

October 19, 2008

Child porn arrest turns up list of local girls' names...

It's every parent's nightmare:

Hundreds of Racine and Mount Pleasant families will be receiving an unsettling letter from local law enforcement officials -- a letter saying their daughters' names, birth dates and addresses were found in the home of a man arrested on Oct. 11 for possession of child pornography.

The letter, available here (it's a large .pdf file; be patient), from Racine County District Attorney Michael Nieskes, Racine Police Chief Kurt Wahlen and Village of Mount Pleasant Chief Tomothy Zarzecki says, "We have no evidence that any crime has been committed against your child." The girls' names were on alphabetized, hand-written lists found in the home of Steven L. Marcsis, 39, of Mount Pleasant.

The lists "appear to center around girls who are involved in youth sports, dance, and gymnastics dating back to the 1980s. The list appears not to be recently made and there is no indication on the list that Mr. Marcsis has ever made any sort of actual contact with a child on the list," Nieskes' letter says. "However, your child's name does appear on the list."

Marcsis was arrested after 1 a.m. on Oct. 11 when he was found hiding in a dumpster outside Dr. Jones Elementary School, with a camera that had lewd photos. He reportedly told officers he had more than 100 pornographic pictures of children on his home computer, and when they searched his home they found some -- he is charged with 15 counts of Child Pornography for pictures downloaded from the internet -- and the lists of local girls' names.

Nieskes and the police chiefs are asking the parents to speak with their children and contact the police "if there is any need for further investigation by the police departments... if you have a belief that your child has had contact with Steven Marcsis."

The Journal Times has more here. Marcsis' original arrest story is here.