June 27, 2009
'It's not just talk,' the mayor said, wielding a chainsaw
It was John Dickert as we haven't seen him before. The usual suit and tie uniform of the real estate broker / mayoral candidate were replaced with bluejeans, t-shirt, baseball cap worn backwards and work gloves.
In his hands, a growling chainsaw.
But first he needed a short lesson from Melissa Warner of Weed Out! Racine. "This one?" the mayor asked, holding a tree's branch for Warner to see. Patiently, she replied, "No, it has seeds; that's a cherry tree..."
"And put your safety glasses over your eyes. They're not for protecting your forehead!"
And so, Racine's new mayor led -- and was led -- as he provided sweat equity and inspiration for the first of his Renew Racine efforts, this one aimed at cleaning out the buckthorn and other invasive species from Riverside Park along the Root River. There was a lot of symbolism in today's project, but also a lot of hard work and progress.
Starting at 9 a.m., some four dozen volunteers manned chainsaws, shovels, clippers and what-have-you, making substantial progress near the Sixth Street bridge alongside the riverbank. Large piles of buckthorn and black locust were hauled out, and ground up.
What does Dickert hope to accomplish? A better-looking park is just the start, but the greater goal is community awareness that "this is a gem." During a short break, Dickert told the volunteers of his experience at the National Mayors' Conference, where other mayors enviously heard him talk of two of Racine's assets: Lake Michigan and the Root River. They had neither, he said.
"I refuse to call this area 'census tracts' " he said. "It's Riverview. We hope and desire that more and more neighbors will come and help. The goal is 50-100 people; we've got a pretty good start."
There was some good-natured kidding. The idea of the mayor with a chainsaw caused Friedel to worry about the potential for "the massacre on Kinzie." On the other hand, a chainsaw might come in handy during the next budget debate.
Kelly Graham, from the city attorney's office was digging up buckthorn, huckleberry and black locust shoots. She lives in Caledonia, but said, "I'm just here to help." Bob Oertel, one of Warner's early recruits into Weed Out! Racine, has been doing this chore at Riverbend. "Just call me Bob," he said, "not Buckthorn Bob."
Jay Warner gave me a quick lesson in black locust, showing me the little shoots in the grass that appear vulnerable to a lawn mower. But they're not; they'll grow back, and become a tree in a year or two... a tree with wicked thorns. "Cutting them down is not enough; they start spreading. John is right," he said. "This is something we can do."
As Dickert wielded his chainsaw, his son, Riley, hauled out the branches, then went back to dab a few drops of pesticide on the stump, "to keep it from growing back," he explained. The mayor's wife, Teresa, and daughter, Eleanor, were also helping. "It's not just talk," Dickert said. "The mayor, his family, his kids are out there working too."
As volunteers rehydrated themselves with cold drinks and cake provided by McDonald's and O&H Bakery during a short break in the shade of a spreading maple tree, Dickert told them how much he appreciated their hard work ... while warning them, "We're just getting started. We're going to come back every six weeks, or until Melissa tells me to stop."
Melissa Warner looked over at what the group had accomplished in just two hours. "Look over there; you can see the tree trunks," she said. "That's what it should look like." She told the workers, "If you know somebody who would like the lumber and will take it down, I'd like to hear from them." Lots of people will gladly take the free firewood once it's cut and stacked, she said, but she wants more than that.
"We're making a dent," the mayor said, leading the troops back into the forest after giving me the opportunity to take a "class photo," below.