December 12, 2009

Carolers fill the cold air with Christmas music

Some 75 carolers followed the lead of St. Rita's Choir, above, and sang Christmas carols Saturday night in Monument Square. By the light of the Nativity scene erected last week, carolers from the Racine Interfaith Coalition of about 20 local churches filled the cold night air with traditional holiday music, while kids sipped hot chocolate and Christmas cookies from O&H Bakery.

The Rev. Glenn Lawson of Plymouth Congregational Church served as emcee and accompanist, and reminded those present that "the first letters of 'Christmas' are 'Christ.' "

Rev. Glenn Lawson provided music for the choir

Students shiver during second climate change rally

It was 35° or so in Monument Square Saturday night, when about 35 high school students -- mostly from Walden III but also a few from Horlick -- demonstrated their concern about global climate change with a candlelight rally.

Not wishing to interrupt the Christmas carols being sung at the other end of the square, the kids stayed quietly across Main Street, at the entrance to Sam Johnson Parkway -- holding lighted candles and a few hand-written signs warning about the increase in CO2 particles in the atmosphere, one of the concerns they hope will be addressed -- and not just talked about -- at the big United Nations climate change conference under way in Copenhagen right now -- a conference at which hundreds of demonstrators were arrested Saturday, as up to 100,000 marched.

The Racine demonstration was entirely peaceful; the students held their candles and signs up for passing motorists to see, and engaged in conversations with many stopped at the stoplight, and with a few pedestrians who walked over to ask what was going on. This was local high school students' second rally on the issue since October, a protest held in conjunction with similar events worldwide organized by 350.0rg. Their Oct. 24 rally here joined 5,200 others, in 181 countries.

Tonight's candlelight "Vigils for survival" around the world will be followed by the ringing of church bells, the beating of drums and the blowing of horns -- all for 350 times -- on Sunday, led by communities of faith: "Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and all kinds of spiritual groups are invited to 'sound out' the 350 call to action led by the World Council of Churches."

Joseph McNutt of Walden, who organized the rally

December 11, 2009

Walden III wins Bronze medal in U.S. News ranking

U.S.News and World Report ranks Walden III High School among the best in the country.

The magazine gives Walden a Bronze medal -- one of 50 medals doled out to the state's 500 high schools -- and the only school honored in Racine County.

U.S. News recognized 100 schools across the U.S. with Gold medals -- but found none worthy of that award in Wisconsin. Three state schools were awarded Silver medals: Gibraltar High School in Fish Creek, Milwaukee School of Languages and Rufus King High School in Milwaukee.

Walden, as we've reported before, stands apart from Racine's other public high schools in some measurable stats: Its graduation rate last year, for example, was 100%; the closest another RUSD high school came was Case's 75.6%. Walden's dropout rate was .3%; Case's is 5.4% and Park HS's was 8.4%.

Walden's 10th grade students score significantly higher on standardized tests than students in other RUSD high schools -- for example, 90.5% on Language, compared to Case's 54.9% and Horlick's 50.6%.

Walden has just 298 students, compared to about 2,000 each in Case, Horlick and Park. Seventy-nine percent of Walden's students take the ACT test, and score a composite 22. At Case -- again, the best of the other schools -- only 40% take the ACT, but their composite score bests Walden's by a fraction: 22.1.

Of the 21,786 public high schools examined by U.S. News and its partner in the project, School Evaluation Services, 1,750 were recognized for considerably outperforming their state's standards, based on academic and enrollment data from the 2007-2008 school year. This is the third year the magazine has rated U.S. high schools -- and the top-ranked school each time has been Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, which offers courses in DNA science, neurobiology and quantum physics. Methodology here.

Based on the percentage of eligible schools in the state awarded Gold or Silver medals, U.S. News ranks Wisconsin schools 44th. The complete state-by-state table is here.

December 10, 2009

Special meeting set on proposed West Racine grocery store

The city's Redevelopment Authority is scheduled to meet in closed session Monday at 4 p.m. to discuss the proposed grocery store with gas pumps in West Racine.

Tom Tousis's proposal for the corner of Washington Avenue and West Boulevard is the only item on the agenda for the RDA's special meeting. Tousis wants to build a $5 million grocery store and restaurant with gas pumps on the vacant site.

Tousis needs the RDA to agree to sell him the land to move forward with the city approval process. He's run into resistance from a group led by Alderman Jim Spangenberg, who opposes the gas pumps.

The meeting's first vote likely will be an effort by RDA members Pete Karas and Scott Terry to hold discussion of Tousis' option in open session. Two meetings ago the RDA voted 4-3 against discussing the proposal in open session. Robert Ledvina joined Karas and Terry in trying to prevent the closed session. John Crimmings, Cory Mason, David Lange and Spangenberg voted to close the meeting to the public.

It's unclear if the RDA will take action on Tousis' proposal Monday. If they vote to approve Tousis's option, the City Council will not consider the proposal at its meeting on Tuesday. Instead, it will be put off until the council's Jan. 5 meeting.

Spangenberg laid out his objections to Tousis's project (including objecting to Tousis supporters' tactics) in a commentary that appeared in The Journal Times on Thursday. In the commentary, Spangenberg said he supports a grocery store and sitdown restaurant (with a liquor license to serve beer and wine) and even suggested some wiggle room on the gas station. Instead of outright rejecting the idea, Spangenberg suggested he could support a well-designed gas station on the site, writing:
The gas station would need to be a new urban design. This means the gas station does not look like a gas station but fits in with the business district and neighborhood.
Many of Spangenberg's concerns, such as too much traffic at the intersection, are issues that would be discussed by the city's Plan Commission and Access Corridor Development Review committee. But Tousis's proposal has not reached that stage because the RDA needs to decide if it wants to sell the land for the project.

Tousis offered to buy the land for $250,000 with a forgivable mortgage of $50,000 for five years if he creates at least 24 jobs. It's unclear if the city will make a counter-offer or simply accept or reject the proposal. Monday's meeting should answer that question.

Gateway, Mount Mary College sign credit transfer agreement

Gateway Technical College signed a deal that will make it easier for local students to transfer associate degree credits to Mount Mary College in Milwaukee.

The agreement will make it easier for Gateway students to earn a four-year bachelor's degree in Mount Mary's Liberal Studies program. It also includes transfers in specific programs, including:
  • Gateway’s Accounting program will transfer to Mount Mary’s Accounting program
  • Gateway’s Business Management program will transfer to Mount Mary’s Business Admninistration program
  • Gateway’s Criminal Justice-Law Enforcement program will transfer to Mount Mary’s Justice program
  • Gateway’s Graphic Communications program will transfer to Mount Mary’s Graphic Design program
  • Gateway’s Interior Design program will transfer to Mount Mary’s Interior Design program
Gateway and Mount Mary officials signed the agreement Thursday.

“The transfer agreement is a symbol of the commitment each of our institutions has for students,” said Gateway Technical College President Bryan Albrecht. “This agreement helps to put one more landing point for our students to help them direct their educational path.”

“I think our student body really represents the richness of the diversity of the area, as does Gateway,” said Mount Mary College President Eileen Schwalbach. “I think Mount Mary is an extremely appropriate choice for students from Gateway. I think they will feel well-supported and welcome at Mount Mary."

OOHPs revive the 'Eight: Reindeer Monlogues' at Sixth Street Theatre

The Over Our Head Players revive their holiday classic, The Eight: Reindeer Monologues starting tonight with the first of four shows over the next two weekends.

Rick Ditter directs the "R-rated" performance, which is returning to the local stage on the 10-year anniversary of its last run.

Written by Jeff Goode, the Reindeer Monlogues described as a "wickedly funny alternative to traditional candy-cane cheer." Here's a plot summary:
Scandal erupts at the North Pole when one of Santa's eight tiny reindeer makes a shocking accusation. As the media descend upon the event, the other members of the sleigh team demand to share their perspectives. A horrific tale of corruption and perversion emerges, implicating everyone from the littlest elf to the tainted Saint himself. As each of the airborne eight shares their thoughts on the holidays, each other, and life with Santa, the truth behind the shocking allegations becomes clearer ... and murkier.
The cast includes: Barbara Akey, Michael Becker, Colleen Burkhart, Nicholas Hoyt, Brianna Hubbard, Brad Kostreva, Daniel Myers and Joseph Piirto.

Production staff includes: Joseph Piirto, Diane Carlson, Melissa Fleischman, Ron Schulz, Jerry Horton, Tom Spraker and Janine Anderson.

Showtimes are 8 p.m. on Dec. 11 (tonight); 5:30 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12; 8 p.m. on Dec. 18 and 5:30 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 19.

Tickets are $15 and are available by calling the box office at (262) 632-6802. 262-632-6802 26262-632-68022-632-6802

Turner supports drunken driving legislation

State Rep. Bob Turner will support efforts to criminalize first-offense drunken driving if children are in the vehicle. Drivers with children as passengers now only get a ticket if it's their first offense.

Turner, D-Racine, said he would vote for the Drunk Driving Reform package passed by the Assembly and Senate. Other reforms include:

* Fourth-offense drunken driving would be a felony if the driver has a previous OWI-related conviction, suspension, or revocation within the past five years.
* A statewide expansion of the successful Winnebago County Safe Streets pilot program, which directs some offenders into alcohol treatment programs.
* Expand use of Ignition Interlock Devices (IIDs), which require drivers to blow into a breathalyzer to operate a vehicle. The new law would require IIDs for all repeat drunk drivers, as well as first-time offenders with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher.
* Additional costs that come with the reforms will be paid for with increases in fines for drunken driving.

“Too many lives have ended tragically or been forever changed by drunk drivers, and I believe it is critical that the state take a stand to curb this major problem,” Turner said. “With the introduction of this new reform package, we are another step closer to making our roads safer for all Wisconsinites,” he stated.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of drunk driving in the nation. According to the Department of Transportation, alcohol-related crashes killed 234 people and injured more than 4,000 others in 2008.

Open meetings matter, and here's why

I heard a funny line from city government today.

The Public Works committee added an item to an agenda this week less than 24 hours - actually it was about 6 hours - before its meeting, which is clearly a violation of open meetings laws.

State law allows governments to skip the 24-hour requirement with "good cause." In this case, the committee discussed, and approved, spending about $29,000 on a public education campaign to promote use of the new recycling bins every city resident will get next year.

Some questions were raised about the need to rush the item onto the agenda without proper notice. The response (emphasis added): "Prior to the advent of the Racine Post, it was fairly common for items to be added to committee agendas within the 24 hour time frame because so many of the items would be finalized after Fridays. We just notice it more now."

So, basically, prior to this little blog's existence, city officials were OK with violating laws designed to inform the public about what they were doing and how they were doing it. Now, they think twice about it. They still do it, but at least they think about it.

I'll take some blame for this culture. Back in my JT days, guys like Pete Karas would bring these types of violations to our attention. And we'd blow 'em off. What's it matter? A committee like Public Works is all about getting business done, and something like a public education campaign for recycling bins makes sense.

It does matter. Government works best in the sunshine, out in the open. When everyone plays by the same set of rules in every circumstance, there's less opportunity to tweak the system for illicit gain. In this case, it's totally innocent. But others are not so innocent.

Earlier this year Alderman Jeff Coe raised questions about how City Administrator Tom Friedel's contract was handled in a closed session meeting that was not properly noticed. Before anyone knew what happened, Friedel was locked in for six years at $95,000, which Coe said was $10,000 more than he expected. The council's response? Silence. (Ironically, Coe got reprimanded for a meetings violation.)

On a personal level, RacinePost relies heavily on city agendas and minutes to cover local government. We trust city officials to accurately portray, as is required by law, what will and was discussed at their meetings. When these records are inaccurately portrayed, we're left in the dark (along with anyone else interested in their local government).

So, yes, we'll continue to be dogged on seemingly minor open meetings and records violations. We strongly encourage anyone in the community who has questions or concerns about open government to get in touch. In keeping with our time-honored role as government watchdogs, we'll investigate every complaint we receive.

You can reach us at:

United Way campaign raises $4.9 million

The United Way of Racine County held its victory dinner Thursday night, and announced the results of this year's fund-raising campaign: $4.9 million.

That was a hair less than the $5 million raised in 2008 -- but a far cry from the declines seen in other communities (just last week, Milwaukee's United Way was $4 million short, down almost 10% from its $45 million goal as its campaign neared completion -- before announcing Thursday night that it had actually exceeded the goal by $500,000).

Racine County Campaign Chair Chris Antonneau, president of David Insurance, said he was pleased with the result. “We knew we were going to be facing significant challenges this year due to the current state of the economy, but instead of focusing on the negative we worked hard to put into action new and creative ways to reach out to as many people as we could. Racine County stepped up to the challenge, giving generously and providing opportunities for a better life for all.”

Antonneau had not set a specific goal for this year's campaign, stating when the drive began, "We all know there are economic challenges." He led a campaign with 30 community leaders in his cabinet and nine loaned employees, plus hundreds of volunteers who ran campaigns in their own workplaces.

According to GivingUSA Foundation, donations to the human services sector were down 13 percent in 2008 and giving was expected to decrease even more in 2009. But Racine County's decline this year was only about 2%.

“The community has shown that the United Way message, LIVE UNITED, is truly being embraced by the people of Racine,” said Rod French, emcee of the victory celebration and a long-time volunteer. “Tonight we heard stories of local people who give of their time, talent and treasure and from people who benefit from United Way programs. They exemplify the thousands of people who share a common goal with United Way to provide the building blocks of a good life to all people of Racine County. United Way is the organization that leads the community in advancing the common good.”

The story behind RCCVB's change to real racine

Two versions of the RCCVB's new name and logo

Fools rush in where others have made a mess of things.

Which may explain the soft rollout of a new name, logo and "brand identity" by the Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Everybody in tourism is aware of the mess that developed earlier this year when Gov. Jim Doyle unveiled the Wisconsin Tourism Department's new slogan, "Live it like you mean it."

Ridicule was the almost-universal reaction. Um, isn't that already trademarked by Bacardi rum? Yup.

With that in mind, RCCVB -- the old name never really rolled off the tongue, eh? -- is carefully putting its new face forward, and has renamed itself real racine, all in lower case. It's been a year-long process, starting with meetings with community leaders early in the process, an email survey, work with Carthage College, even a 2002 study -- all talking about the things visitors see in Racine County, what we mean to them, what our most salable aspects are. (At right, RCCVB's old logo.)

"It's definitely the lake," Dave Blank, president and CEO of the RCCVB. But it goes beyond that. "We make people feel welcome, we're hard-working and down to earth. That's what brought us to this brand. It reflects this. That's why it's lower case: people are at home here. We make them feel welcome.

"We did a market-wide benefit analysis, looking at the entire value proposition, the brand personality. real racine is just the tip of the iceberg," Blank said.

The "benefits that describe Racine County," as listed in the brand guidelines document by Boelter & Lincoln, the Milwaukee consulting firm (hired by the RCCVB for $25,000), are as follows:
  • Functional: Beach/Lake, Architecture, Convenience, Marina, Downtown, Farmers Markets, Dining, Sports, Hotels.
  • Emotional: Homey," Pride, Hard-working, Honesty, Relife (time with friends and family).
  • Self-Expressive: "Regular person," Down to Earth, Laid back, Easy-going, Athletic.
Does that feel like us and you? If so, they've done a good job.

The brand's value proposition, what the consultants call the county's "flag in the terra firma... the difference between us and the rest of the world" is: We're a well-established community of hard-working, reliable folks who make you feel welcome... A place where you always feel at home."

There's more to the two-word, lower-case logo than meets the eye as well. Boelter & Lincoln say the "twin wave" was inspired by "the fresh, clean feeling of laying on the beach and the genuine quality of our people... The mix of blue and brown, water and land, relaxation and reliability back up our brand's message. This graphic statement is echoed within the 'dot' of the letter 'i.' The twin benefits of living in Racine county speak loudly, even within a simple logo treatment."

Blank -- who has been very successful at luring national events like triathlons, hot rodders and cycling classics to Racine in recent years -- says other CVBs are doing the same thing he's doing, rebranding an organization that always has had less to do with "conventions" than with tourism. The RCCVB is also partnering with the Downtown Racine Corporation this year, for the first time producing a joint single tourism brochure, a 56-page magazine actually. It will come out in January, 110,000 copies distributed at 650 locations around the state. The partnership will also help advertisers, who now need a presence in just one publication (and at reduced ad rates).

When he "finds" the money, Blank plans to change the sign on the RCCVB's office at 14015 Washington Ave. in Ives Grove. In the meantime, the biggest change will be in real racine's advertising. Print ads will be based on strong photography, showing people enjoying Racine County. Local photographers Brad Jaeck and Carol Hanson are providing images linking people with the county's attractions. "We actually hear wonderful things from visitors about Racine and Racine Country," says Blank.

Now the trick is getting that message out to even more potential tourists. And updating the website.

Postscript: The JT ran a poll with its story about the RCCVB's name change, asking: "Do you like the new Real Racine name for the visitor-promotion group?" So far the results are definitely mixed: 106 say yes; 105 say no.

New York band claims performance at Racine club two months before it opened; Also played at Wind Point's 'Fish Week'

The Raytown Roadhouse precedes itself - literally.

A New York City-based band is claiming it played at a gig at the Roadhouse on Aug. 19 - two months before the bar and restaurant opened.

Esquela writes on its blog that the Raytown Roadhouse is "notorious as the best place for country music in the entire Cheese Belt." The band gives a nice write up of their "appearance" in Racine.
While Esquela insist their music “knows no genre,” they acknowledge country is one of their influences. The audience agreed. Chico took the stage in a cowboy hat with a large jade buckle adorning the brim. Rebecca was similarly adorned with a ten-gallon hat, and even boasted a pair of high-heeled snakeskin cowboy boots. Keith was dressed normally, but sported a silver bolo tie over his black “Ramones” tee-shirt.
Pete Karas, co-owner of the Raytown Roadhouse, laughed at the reference. He'd never heard of Esquela and has no idea how they came up with the alleged Racine gig.

The band's website also details a colorful appearance at "Fish Week" in Wind Point.
Toward the end of the hour-long set, after the darkness had settled and the fireflies twinkled through the lawn, Chico began thanking the crowd and announcing the next act, YagerShlager. However, before the band could exit the stage, YagerShalger’s lead singer Trent Hercules waved Esquela back on. Taking the microphone, Trent asked the crowd “How many of you want to hear YagerShlager?” The question was met with a smattering of applause, mostly from backstage. Trent then asked “How many of you want to hear more Esquela?!!” The deafening applause, mixed with whoops and piercing whistles proclaimed the crowd’s choice. Trent then bowed to Chico, handing back the mike and gesturing for him to continue.
Who knew Wind Point had a Fish Week?

Lumpkin considers run for County Board, City Council

Ken Lumpkin is looking to break back into local politics.

The former Racine County Board supervisor and owner of the Insider News took out papers today to run for County Board and City Council, though he hasn't decided if he'll run for one or both offices.

Lumpkin ran for both seats in 2008, but lost them both to James Kaplan.

December 1 was the first day candidates could begin to circulate paper for the April 6 spring elections. Primary elections, if needed, are Feb. 16.

December 9, 2009

OP-ED: The case for Single Payer health care

By Paulette Garin

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s platform contains three resolutions in regard to Healthcare Reform all supporting Single Payer.

Single Payer is the gold standard of healthcare reform. It is 100% guaranteed coverage for all Americans regardless of job transfer or pre-existing condition. It fulfills President Obama’s three principles of cost effectiveness, access and choice unlike any other proposal.

Single Payer is the only plan that guarantees “Everybody In, Nobody Out.”

Single Payer will control the costs of healthcare for millions of Americans, as well as state and local governments. By removing private and for-profit health insurance companies from participating in American healthcare, there is no need for federal taxpayer subsidies to insurance companies. No one is going to be fined, treated as a tax evader, or risk jail time for failing to buy health insurance under a Single Payer system. A Single Payer system would actually save $400 Billion annually.

Single Payer is the only plan where losing your job does not mean losing your healthcare. Single Payer guarantees your choice of doctor and hospital, unlike those whose choice remains with their insurance company.

Single Payer eliminates the shameful disparities in U.S. healthcare. The proposed expansion of Medicaid will not lessen disparities and is unsustainable as states will be forced to absorb the costs. Just because a patient has Medicaid, does not guarantee a healthcare provider will accept them and the low Medicaid reimbursement rate.

Single Payer is not “socialized medicine.” Single Payer is publicly funded, but privately driven by you and your doctor. Single Payer is quite simply “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All.” Have you heard of anyone wanting to give up their Medicare?

Single Payer eliminates the bureaucratic middlemen of the insurance industry that take 31% of every healthcare dollar. No insurance company CEO will decide who has medical coverage under a Single Payer plan.

Healthcare reform in the form of Single Payer is the real economic stimulus package. The number one factor affecting an American company’s ability to be competitive in the global economy is employee health insurance costs.

If we do not get Single Payer healthcare passed at the federal level, momentum will continue to build nationwide to pass Single Payer legislation within individual states. Please encourage members of Wisconsin’s State Legislature to support Single Payer.

On July 22, 2009, President Obama gave a press conference where he said, “"I want to cover everybody… Unless you have a single-payer system… you're probably not going to reach every single individual."

What can we do right now? Call and/or write Sens. Feingold and Kohl ask them to support Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) and his Single Payer amendments. In addition, contact Wisconsin’s entire congressional delegation asking them to support Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s amendment which would allow individual states to pursue Single Payer legislation.

Unlike any of the other proposals currently circulating through Congress, Single Payer is the most humane, cost-effective and comprehensive solution we have -- the gold standard.
Paulette Garin ran for Congress in 2008. She is now Wisconsin state coordinator of Progressive Democrats of America, a federal political action committee that champions a campaign of “Healthcare NOT Warfare.”

Pssst! How about a dog for Christmas?

Pssst! Yes, you ... you with the kids. Pay attention! I'm a busy man.

Santa, here. Just thought I'd let you know what your kids want for Christmas. Look, I've got their letters right here:

Dolls, a doll house, dollhouse furniture, more dolls, electric train set, books, a baseball mitt, a triceratops, a pair of diamond earrings... oh, wait, that was your wife's letter. Where was I? All the usual.

Oh, and a pony.

Hey, I don't make this stuff up! But look, I know how hard it would be to get a pony into your apartment, day in and day out, down the stairs, up the stairs. Where would it sleep? And have you seen the price of hay and oats these days? So listen up, I have an idea, one that usually works just fine:

How about a dog?

Tiny is a Boston Terrier mix. She has a short, easy-to-care-for brindle and white coat. She has one ear that flops to one side, giving her some extra character. She is a small- to medium-sized dog with lots of energy. She would fit best in a home with children eight years old and up, due to her habit of jumping up on people.

Tiny is easy, intelligent and eager to please so with a little work and some regular exercise she will be a wonderful pet. And she's much smaller than a pony. And already dressed for Christmas!

You can see Tiny at the Countryside Humane Society, 2706 Chicory Road, or call (262) 554-6699.

Or, I could just bring 'em each a pony...

The cartoon @

Whoops, one more aspect of the deal to attract American Tire and Recycling emerges...

Miller Park tax collections drop ... so tax will go on and on

Here we go again!

The Journal Sentinel reports today that sales tax collections for the Miller Park stadium district are 11.2% below last year, and $2.5 million below what the district had expected.

What that means is clear: the damn 0.1% sales tax collected in Racine County -- as well as Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington and Milwaukee counties -- won't end in 2014 as had been hoped.

The November numbers -- which reflect sales from September -- were $1.09 million for the five-county region, actually 22.5% less than a year ago.

Read the Journal Sentinel's story for more details -- for example, the concerns of Mike Duckett, the district's executive director, wondering why this tax is producing so much less than other sales taxes in the state.

One more thing: Merry Christmas, George Petak, wherever you are. Thanks for nothing, but especially for your 5 a.m. vote on Oct. 5, 1995, imposing this forever-tax on us whether we're baseball fans or not.

December 8, 2009

Walden students check in with global climate change conference; Video: 'Jai Ho; dance for flash mob

Members of Walden's "Green School" log online to visit with Jamie Racine at the
international climate change conference in Copenhagen.

A Racine woman representing the youth perspective at this month's international climate change meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark brought the message back home Tuesday.

Jamie Racine, of Racine, is a Midwest youth delegate at the meeting of world leaders. Officials are negotiating a new international climate change treaty.

Jamie, who left for Copenhagen on Dec. 3, held a video conference Tuesday at Circa Celeste cafe with members of Walden III High School's Green School. About 15 students talked with Jaimie over Skype.

Mayor John Dickert also dropped in. He asked Jamie to talk about Racine's efforts to become an international leader in fresh water research. Dickert said he's working with Milwaukee and Chicago to create a research consortium paid for with federal money. He also said had a meeting with the Chinese last week on clean water.

Racine, led by Dr. Julie Kinzelman, is already recognized as a leader in cleaning up Great Lakes beaches and fast-track water testing.

"Clean water is key to the future of the world," Dickert told Jamie. "We want to be the world leader on this."

Jamie assured the mayor she would bring up Racine's efforts on clean water as part of her efforts in Copenhagen.

The Walden students asked Jamie about the youth delegation's efforts in Copenhagen. She described a highly coordinated campaign. For example, at one speech by US Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson, the 80-member youth delegation had four questions they wanted to ask. Each person in the delegation knew the questions and were prepared to ask them if called on.

Today is also the 29th anniversary of John Lennon's murder. In response, the youth delegation changed Lennon's classic, "Give Peace a Chance," to "Give Youth A Chance" and sang it at the convention.

Walden students responded by sending Jamie a video of their performance of the "Jai Ho" dance from "Slum Dog Millionaire." The song won an Oscar for best original song earlier this year. The title, in Hindi, means "Victory to you." Youth around the world are performing the dance and uploading it to YouTube as part of a global "flash mob."

Here's the video:

Follow Jamie Racine at the Will Steger Foundation's website and on Twitter @jamierexpedcop

December 7, 2009

Committee lowers cost of golf pass for county residents

Shoop Park Golf Course

Johnson Park Golf Course is located in the middle of Caledonia, but is technically in the city of Racine. Soon village residents can play it like it's their own.

The City Council's Finance and Personnel Committee voted unanimously Monday night to offer a season pass to Racine County residents at the same rate city residents pay. With final approval from the full council, the pass, which covers unlimited play on city courses, will be $715 in 2010.

Non-city residents paid $1,040 for a season pass on city courses in 2009. The city courses include Shoop Park, Washington Park and Johnson Park golf courses. Johnson is the gem of the three and is considered one of the top public courses in the area.

The committee voted unanimously to lower the rates, but only after a vigorous discussion of alternatives. Alderman Terry McCarthy wondered if an intermediate rate could be set for county residents living outside of the city. His proposal would have set a three-tier pricing system for city, county and non-resident passes.

McCarthy also wondered if the city should lower the cost of the pass, because Johnson Park is already booked solid during the year. A lower cost for the pass could increase pressure on the course. He suggested some kind of pass to encourage play on Shoop or Washington, but the suggestion didn't take hold.

The hope is that lowering the cost of the season pass will generate more revenue for the city's golf courses next year. The city will have to sell at least four more passes to break even. (Officials also noted selling more passes to people from Mount Pleasant, Caledonia and Sturtevant could generate more revenue by bringing along guests, renting carts, buying food, etc.)

Any additional revenue generated by the passes will benefit Racine's golf courses. Greens fees pay for operations at the city's three courses, which are not funded by taxpayer dollars, Finance Director Dave Braun said.

Season pass holders need to play at least 34 rounds of 18 holes at Johnson Park (about $21 a round) to break even on the pass. Shoop and Washington Park are about half that cost.

McCarthy amended the resolution to require a review of the lower rate at the end of next season.

Alderman Mike Shields voted for the reduction, but expressed his disinterest in the issue.

"Not being a golfer, I don't care what they charge," he said.

Alderman Bob Anderson said he didn't expect the change to have much of an effect.

"I have my doubts this will increase revenue," he said.

Parks Director Donnie Snow said he supported the reduction, and the only way to test it was to put it into action.

"We don't know until we try it," Snow said the potential for additional revenue.

The reduced pass rate now heads to the full City Council for approval.

City Notes: Taxi biz gets approval, but owner can't drive; Props to Shakoor

James Ragland

The Journal Times' Mike Moore picked up a good story Nov. 26 when he reported a man the city approved to run a taxi business had been charged with driving without a license.

James Ragland got the OK to run Metro Taxi of Racine on Oct. 26 despite owing a $173 fine in Caledonia.

Moore's reporting made the city look bad - they'd conducted a background check on Ragland but apparently not a check on his driving record - and the Public Safety and Licensing Committee re-took up the matter Monday night.

This time they approved a business license for Ragland, but not a license to allow him to drive a taxi. If Ragland's license gets approved by the full City Council, he could hire a driver, but he can't drive a taxi himself.

The ordeal led to some humorous, if common-sensical, quotes at the meeting.

"If you don't have a license you can't expect us to issue a license to run a cab," said Alderman Jim Kaplan.

"I'm not planning to operate against the law," Ragland said. "That would be foolish."

The committee voted 3-1 to grant Ragland his business license. Alderman Bob Mozol voted against the license, saying it didn't make sense to approve a taxi business for someone without a driver's license.

In other news ...


Props to Alderman Q.A. Shakoor II for holding off on last week's Corinne Reid-Owens Tribute committee meeting due to open meetings concerns. We raised questions about whether meeting was properly noticed last week. Shakoor then postponed the meeting, refusing to even discuss a date for the next meeting. That's admirable conduct from the City Council president and a good example of government acknowledging it must operate in the sunshine.

Liquor licenses

Alderman Greg Helding's proposal to end refunds for people who receive "reserve" class B liquor licenses was deferred. The city now pays back $9,500 of the $10,000 reserve license fee to new license holders. Helding wants to eliminate the refund, which would make it harder, or at least more expensive, for bars and restaurants to acquire licenses. The committee will take up the issue at its next meeting.

Zoe complaint

The Finance and Personnel Committee denied Zoe Outreach Ministries $4,800 claim against the city for a broken sewer line. Assistant City Attorney Nicole Loop said the problem couldn't be traced to the city, and was, if anything, Mount Pleasant's fault because they own the line. But a claim against the village would be difficult because work done on the line occurred two months before the break occurred. That makes it near impossible to blame any one entity for the damage.

Wastewater rates go up a few bucks

City residents will see a slight bump in their wastewater rates next year under a proposal approved Monday night by the Finance and Personnel Committee.

Sewer bills for the average city resident would increase 1.8 percent under the proposal. The average bill will come out to about $238.

Keith Haas, manager of Racine's utilities, said sewer bills have been flat over the last four years. The average sewer bill in 2007 was $236, Haas said.

City residents also get a deal compared to surrounding communities. Mount Pleasant residents are charged $95 per quarter, or $380 a year. Residents in western Caledonia pay $109 per quarter, or $436 a year, and eastern Caledonia residents pay $99 per quarter or $396 per year.

City plan to pay company for jobs is 'unique,' development director says

The city is one step closer to paying a company to bring jobs to Racine.

The Finance and Personnel committee voted 3-1 Monday night to allow the city to enter into a developer's agreement with American Tire and Recycling, which is based on the Wisconsin-Michigan border in Niagara, Wis.

The city would pay American Tire $39,600 to cover the company's rent at 2301 S. Memorial Drive for 18 months. In exchange, the company is committed to creating 88 jobs over 18 months, with city residents getting first shot at the jobs.

City Development Director Brian O'Connell said the jobs incentive grant was "unique" for Racine.

"I don't think I've brought anything to you that's only a jobs incentive grant," O'Connell said.

Committee members passed the proposal despite unanswered questions. Aldermen asked City Development Director Brian O'Connell to find out how much the jobs will pay and if they're union jobs.

Alderman Terry McCarthy also requested the company lay out a specific schedule for when it will create jobs, and then have the city tie the rent payments to job creation.

O'Connell said the city would pay American Tire's rent on a quarterly basis, with the first payment of $6,600 coming when the company takes occupancy of the South Memorial Drive Building.

The company is committed to immediately hiring 33 low-skill workers and 20 truck drivers for the Racine site. It intends to ramp up to two shifts with a total of 88 workers over the next year and a half.

While the low-skill jobs may not pay great, O'Connell said, they're needed in Racine. The city has a large unskilled workforce that could use jobs that don't require degrees or advanced training.

"There are a lot of people without skills who need money," O'Connell said.

The meeting started with O'Connell taking some heat from the committee for providing a written review of the agreement on Monday, the same day as the meeting.

"Is there any way this committee can be better informed?" Alderman Q.A. Shakoor II asked O'Connell.

O'Connell said he didn't have an excuse. "It's the simple press of business," O'Connell responded to Shakoor. "I don't have a better reason."

Shields wanted to defer action on the proposal until the committee's Dec. 21 meeting, which may get canceled because it's the week of Christmas. That would push off a City Council vote to Jan. 5.

Instead, the committee voted to pass the proposal with the understanding O'Connell would bring more information to the City Council meeting on Dec. 15.

This was the second city committee to take up the proposal. The Redevelopment Authority approved the developer's agreement last week.

Keary Ecklund, head of American Tire and Recycling, did not attend either meeting, leaving O'Connell to present the agreement and answer questions.

Harmony on the Square: Nativity and Light of Peace

Nativity on the Square; Light of Peace is at left

Peace reigns on Monument Square tonight, with a Christian Nativity scene somewhat crowding out, but no longer blocking entirely a Peace obelisk representing many different religions.

The two symbols share the north end of the square. The Nativity, with Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus and two lighted Christmas trees, and six small billboards, was erected today by a group of Christian churches.

The Light of Peace, a small, octagonal, eight-ft. tall, white obelisk decorated with the word "peace" in many languages, along with the symbols of many different religions, was erected over the weekend by Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church. It is an effort "to honor all traditions," said the Rev. Tony Larsen when it was put up for the first time last year.

The two symbols were closer together last year. This year, the Nativity at first was erected in front of the obelisk, blocking its view from the square, until members of Olympia Brown moved it somewhat to the west today, so both are visible -- although if you don't look carefully you could miss the obelisk entirely.

The relative harmony is in stark contrast to 2007's holiday display, when an Atheists' Pyramid was erected on the exact spot where the Light of Peace now stands.

Here's the view from the other side.

Regency Mall's list of 'Santa's Top Picks' for Christmas 2009

Regency Mall put together a list of the most popular gifts kids and adults want wrapped under the tree this Christmas. Here's what they're saying is hot this holiday season:

DJ Hero – This music rhythm video game has an electronic turntable device that lets kids mix and scratch to popular tunes like a real DJ. Starting at $99 at GameStop.

Wii Motion Plus – A new Wii accessory that has additional sensors creating fast response to the slightest wrist action or twist, and greatly enhances accuracy and control – just $24.99 at GameStop.

Keeping in the Wii family – Find Super Mario Bros Wii $49.99; Wii Fit Plus Game $99.99; Wii Sports Resort $49.99; Nintendo Wii $199.99 and more.

Remote control toys – Young children love animated plush toys and vehicles that go.

Gifts for adults

Mini Laptops / Net books – All of the best manufacturers from Apple to Dell are in the game. These mini laptops are perfect for travel and staying "connected" wherever you are.

Video Game Consoles – From Xbox to Wii, the game consoles get better every year and feature relatively inexpensive add-ons to keep the games challenging and enjoyable year after year.

Portable GPS Navigator Systems – These systems have navigated their way from the dashboard to the purse and pocket. Pre-program any location in any city and you're on your way. The Tom Tom One is regular price $129 at Radio Shack.

Mobile Phones – The latest editions go beyond calls, text and e-mail to features including video cameras, Web browsers, and photo capabilities that are better than many stand-alone cameras. Get the new iPod Nano with video at Radio Shack $149.99.

Blu-ray Disc Player – It seems like Blu-ray picture quality just can't get any better, and now many players are compatible with almost any disc format. Recent updates include streaming and Wi-Fi capabilities to watch Internet content on your TV. The list of options is endless.

Portable Gaming Devices – From the Sony PSP to the Nintendo DS you can take fun along wherever you want to go. Don't forget accessories like headphones and portable speakers. Nintendo DSi at GameStop just $169.99. Sony Reader $229 at Radio Shack.

Digital Cameras – Point-and-shoots have come a long way. High quality imagery, ease of use, and affordable prices make it easier than ever to capture your memories.

Portable MP3 Players – Sleek new models feature touch screens and can play music and games, stream podcasts, show HD video, and more. Look for iPod, Zune and SanDisk models.

Flip Video Mini Camcorders – These hand-held video recorders are the size of a cell phone, can record up to 120 minutes, and can come with built-in software for sharing your adventures.

For Young and Old

For All – Games, Books, Movies, Cashmere Scarves, Luxurious Scents, Leather Gloves, and Slippers.

For Women – Personalized jewelry, planners/organizers, family photo frames, cosmetics or manicure/pedicure gift certificates.

For Men, Outdoor/Sports Gang – Multi-tools, outdoor accessories, hats, camping accessories, and outdoor apparel & equipment.

City holding seasonal flu clinic on Dec. 19

The city, in partnership with the NAACP, is holding a flu clinic on Dec. 19 at the MLK Community Center, 1134 MLK Drive. One hundred doses of the seasonal flu vaccine will be available. Participants must be 18 or older. If you're interested, contact the King Center at (262) 636-9237 or Jacqueline Pinager at (414) 384-2000.

December 6, 2009

Answering and raising questions about American Tire and Recycling; Proposed Racine business to use tires to generate power

Our last story on American Tire and Recycling, a company planning to open in Racine next month, drew two interesting comments from people in the know:
I have had dealings with the CEO of American Tire & Recycling,Kerry Ecklund. He is also the owner of Keweenaw Scrap Tire & Metal. He means well, however, is looking for hand-outs. He knows how to dodge bullets, and manipulate the public relations machine. The cities of Racine and Niagara need to consult with the Michigan D.E.Q., Calumet (MI)Township, Houghton (MI) County. Ask about revolving loans, development block grants and loans. How many were paid back? Why did Kerry pack-up his shredder operation in MI and move to WI?
American Tire & Recycling doesn't seem to be an efficient operation,refering to the plan to ship tire parts to/from Niagara/Racine.Anyone in the recycling industry can tell yopu that the more you move products/by-products around,the more costs accrue.If all they plan to do is make T.D.F. (tire derived fuel), they'll not last very long.T.D.F. is a low-grade product that sells for $20 to $50 per ton. Real tire recyclers furthur refine tire shred to such products that command a premium on the recycled rubber market (crumb rubber,playground surfacing). As one who is heavily involved in the tire recycling industry, I think American Tire Recycling is a company looking to operate with other peoples money to benefit company shareholders. This has happened before.
We've done some background research on American Tire, and there's a shred of truth to the comments. Keary Ecklund, head of American Tire, is tied to a large scrap metal company in northern Michigan. (We actually reached Ecklund at Keweenaw Scrap Metal in Hancock, Mich.) His family also owns Ecklund Carriers, a national trucking company.

The interview with Ecklund went well. He talked openly about his company's plans for Racine and how it will tie into their operations in Niagara, which is about three hours north on the Wisconsin-Michigan border.

Ecklund said the plan is to setup a simple tire collection point on Memorial Drive in Racine. Truck drivers will collect used tired from a radius of 100 miles and bring them to Racine, where workers will cut the treads from the sidewalls and then put them on another truck, which will drive the cut tires to Niagara for recycling.

Ecklund said he's planning to hire about 90 employees to work two shifts. The employees will work four 10-hour days in a row and then get four days off. The jobs will be low-skill jobs at the site and truck drivers to collect materials. There will be no scrap material on site.

We discovered a few new specifics about the company, including how it makes business sense to collect tires in Racine and ship them all the way to Niagara for recycling. The reason: biomass fuel.

Ecklund said his company is recycling tires to sell to paper plants, which use the material to burn with biomass, mostly wood, to run their plants. The rubber helps the biomass burn more efficiently. Recycled tires burn consistently at 16,000 BTUs, while biomass burns at between 6,000 and 9,000 BTUs. Combining the two ingredients helps raise the temperature of the biomass and even out the temperature.

It's a good market for American Tire because several major paper plants are switching to biomass as a more reliable fuel than coal, which has fluctuated in price in recent years, Ecklund said. Biomass is also a renewable resource. Paper company harvest forests every 20 years, which is a lot quicker than coal is produced.

He added We Energies and other companies are also planning to build biomass plants in the coming years, which gives American Tire additional customers for its materials. (Read a 2008 story about his plans, which says he can get $50 a ton for tire-derived fuels.)

Ecklund said American Tire originally setup its recycling operation in northern Michigan, but had to shut down because it was drawing too much power from the region. "We were making lights flicker in people's homes," Ecklund said.

His company is planning to move into a former power plant in Niagara, which offers plenty of energy infrastructure to run the recycling business.

Ecklund said he learned about the terminal on Memorial Drive in Racine because his family has run a trucking company for many years. He said he knew every "nook and cranny" for trucking companies in the state.

"We're excited to get in there," Ecklund said.

What was interesting about the interview with Ecklund was the number of minor differences he shared with the information provided to city officials at last week's RDA meeting. RCEDC and city officials suggested the business was up and running, but it's not. Ecklund only received approval to move into its Niagara site last week.

Officials also suggested a similar operation to the one in Racine was running in the La Crosse area, but Ecklund said they had no other sites running in the state. If the Racine operation goes well, he said, they're looking at two other tire collection sites in Wisconsin.

Officials also made no mention of the use of recycled tires for power plants - they only said uses would include shredding tires for playground surfaces - and didn't tell the RDA about Ecklund's significant ties to scrap and recycling companies. While not critical information, it was very difficult to track down information about a company named "American Tire and Recycling" in Wisconsin. It was significantly easier to find information about Ecklund's scrap business.

While we seem to have an answer to the first commenter's question - Why did Kerry leave Michigan? - we haven't researched Ecklund's track record in other communities. It probably makes sense to look further into his companies before the city approves just under $40,000 in free rent for the operation.

That said, jobs are jobs. If American Tire is going to put 80-90 people to work in Racine, it's hard to blame officials for taking a leap-before-you-look approach to welcoming the business to the city.

Is it too late to fly South?

First came the cold... and now the Weather Bureau predicts snow... up to a inch of it overnight, followed by another half-inch Monday. And that's just the amuse-bouche!

The main course doesn't come until Tuesday, when NOAA says ominously:
Snow. The snow could be heavy at times. Low around 30. Windy, with an east wind between 15 and 25 mph, with gusts as high as 35 mph. Chance of precipitation is 90%. New snow accumulation of 5 to 9 inches possible.
And would you believe another 1 to 3 inches for dessert on Wednesday? That's the prediction.

Let's hope these geese on barely-frozen-over Hansche Pond were walking to someplace warm and dry. Good idea for the rest of us, too. (Oh, and get the shovel ready and the snowblower primed!)

Warm results, but no record, at 3rd Blank-fest

Ron Purtee with the result of this year's Blank-fest

Undoubtedly, some grinches will say this year's Blank-fest was a failure. After all, the third-annual collection of blankets for the homeless fell significantly shy of the number collected last year.

But the homeless who will soon receive the 78 blankets and 20 sleeping bags donated Saturday night at McAuliffe's Pub may have warmer feelings about the charity music event. The first Blank-fest brought in 70 blankets; last year the event topped out at 145.

Organizer Ron Purtee preferred to look on the bright side as three bands pumped out the music and he tried unsuccessfully (see photo above) to get his hands around all the blankets that will go to Love and Charity Mission and the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization shelter for the homeless.

Here's a write-up on the event from JJ McAuliffe, owner of McAuliffe's Pub:
Saturday's Third Annual Blankfest at McAuliffe's Pub was still a success even if numbers were down this year. Even with the numbers down, the event still managed to bring in 78 blankets and 20 sleeping bags. The addition of the sleeping bags is even more important because those will provide better protection to local homeless who are on the streets.

The event was put together three years ago my Racine native Ron Purtee and was modeled after a similar event in New York. Ron approached local club owner JJ McAuliffe about hosting the event at his Pub. The first years event was more successful then the original one held in New York. The first year collected a little under 80 blankets. Last years event brought in around 180 blankets. The addition of the great people who brought sleeping bags made this event a success even with the lower numbers. McAuliffe's also raised $165 at the door that went to The Love And Charity Mission. The Veterans Of America donated a $100 check also to The Love And Charity Mission.

In all 78 blankets and 20 sleeping bags with $265 in cash were raised. Live music was provided by Rest Of Yesterday (formerly Shameless Place), Madrid (from Milwaukee), and Thunder Driver (from Zion Il). In addition to the music organizer Ron Purtee performed his stand up comedy act to the crowd.

The blankets and the sleeping bags were distributed amongst both H.A.L.O. and The Love And Charity Mission.