January 22, 2010

Miller House: New owners tackle this fixer-upper

One day, you run a nice little neighborhood tavern and own some rental properties.

The next day, you own the biggest fixer-upper in Racine, arguably an imposing historic mansion but one that some who have seen it say is just one push from falling over, a candidate for demolition.

Meet Peg and Lou Larson, the new owners -- since Monday -- of the Miller House, a 5,000 sq. ft. landmark at 1110 South Main Street across from Gateway Technical College. It dates from 1899 and went into foreclosure one year ago, its owners defaulting on a $672,948 mortgage. We told you all about the house on Dec. 30, 2008.

Peg and Lou -- each of the bars they've owned has gone by that name, including their current one at 3113 Douglas Ave. -- first saw the house in 2004. Preservation Racine described it this way: "It is undoubtedly the most sophisticated example of Classical Revival Style in the city. Two columned porticos are deftly interwoven at the entryway: the lower one bows out from the middle of a pillared porch across the front to support a semicircular balcony above it, while the taller one forms a two-story columned canopy with a classical pediment that hovers over the balcony below it." And so on...

The Miller House had been listed at the time for $400,000 and sold for $360,000, and was the star of a Preservation Racine tour. "It was beautiful," said Lou, but too expensive for them.

The front stairway, in various stages of restoration

Nobody would call it beautiful today. Outside, one of the porch pillars is missing; there's a hole in the floor and another one in the concrete steps, the paint is peeling; that lovely second-floor balcony is not someplace I wanted to stand. Inside there are walls with the plaster totally removed, just the lath remaining; some of the house's bathrooms have no fixtures... or walls; the chimney was damaged by lightning; much of the woodwork is in various stages of restoration ... or is it decay? I could go on, but you get the idea.

And yet -- Peg and Lou see the house's beauty. It was supposed to be auctioned off at a Sheriff's sale on Dec. 17. "We saw the auction sign, called up and negotiated with the bank, and closed on Monday." said Lou. After turning over a check for $147,000 -- that's not a misprint -- the house was theirs.

Did they get a bargain? Did they get taken? There are arguments on both sides. When I heard they'd bought the house, I told Lou it was a "gutsy" move. "That isn't what I was thinking," he wrote back, "but I like that better."

As they took me through the house, it was clear that they see its potential more than its defects. Lou knelt down to show off one of the bedroom's floors, right, with beautiful parquet around the perimeter. It's an original SC Johnson floor, and it needs little more than a light sanding and some of that famous wax. "It's going to be gorgeous," Lou says. There are four big bedrooms on the second floor.

The sweeping oak stairway at the front of the house looks a little dicey -- one step is missing, actually, and different parts of the woodwork are in various stages of restoration. The paint's been stripped from most of it; one section's been restained, but it's clear that many, many hours of work remain. For now, it seemed prudent to use the servants' back stairway to reach the upper floors.

But there are beveled glass windows and doors, gas and electric lighting fixtures, a sleeping porch, fireplaces (some still with their mantels, some not), a carriage house out back, 10-ft. ceilings, even an elevator (well, part of one). The less said about the kitchen, the better. "The house needs a whole lot of cosmetics," Peg says. "A modern functioning kitchen," says Lou. "But one that complements the time of the house," adds Peg.

Peg and Lou are going into this with their eyes open. They've been married for 10 years (They got married on 9/9/99 in the back of their bar, dressed up in Roaring '20s get-up. "That was a hoot," Lou says.) but have been buying and rehabbing houses since 1997. The couple are hands-on, doing much of the work themselves. "Trial and error," is how they've learned, says Lou, adding that his Dad taught him, "You try something until you can't, and then you call in a professional."

"We're collectors," says Peg. "We collect everything. We collect antiques...really big ones." They also own lots of stuff they'll need for the Miller House. Take that missing porch pillar, for example. "I bet I own 20 pillars," Lou said. He's got them stored at the Uptown Theatre, built in 1929, which the couple bought three years ago -- mostly for its eight apartments, but also for its storage space. What else might he have in there? Well, there's 5,000 sq. ft. of gymnasium floor, bought for $200 when a Milwaukee High School was being torn down; it took Lou two weeks to tear up that flooring. And then there's the tin ceiling from the old National Liquor Bar in Milwaukee; "We took it down piece by piece." What else? Double doors, bubble glass, huge cabinetry...

Peg and Lou know how much they've bitten off because they've done this before -- although not on this scale. They live in an 1870 cream city brick house they restored. Many of their rental properties "were brought back from the brink," one step away from condemnation when they were purchased. And yet -- the two said they've been hearing rumblings from those who care about preservation that maybe someone else should have bought the Miller House.

Doorway to second-floor porch

"We have been hearing some rumors that Peg and I may not be 'the right people' because of the fact that we are landlords of some 'inner-city' properties," says Lou. Or maybe it's that they're bar owners. Or that Lou has a long, grey ponytail. It's hard to argue with anonymous rumblings, but they hurt nonetheless. Lou says his properties "look better inside than outside; I want to satisfy my tenants. We pride ourselves on being caretakers of over 12 buildings in Racine." He notes that he doesn't re-side his houses; he paints them. Well, Peg is the painter; she worked on a scissor lift and cherry picker for two weeks on one of their houses.

People worried about the future of the Miller House need to hear Peg and Lou talk passionately about it. "This one, we want to save," says Lou. "It's in the right hands," adds Peg. "It's not going to be torn down, or turned into apartments." Lou says, "We plan to live in it. Of course, we won't know until we get it done. But we're going to restore it to the best of our ability."

And when will that be, and for how much money? Ah, both of those are moving targets. In the course of an hour-long tour, Lou started out saying the house might be done in about two years, for perhaps another $100,000-$150,000. He's looking forward to sitting on the porch to watch the Fourth of July Parade. As we kept talking, the two estimates started stretching. Peg said, "It'll probably be $300,000. Lou said, "I say two years; it'll probably be five." "Send money," he jokes.

"People may not like my timeline, but they'll love my results," Lou says. He invites skeptics to come to an open house this Sunday at 1400 Erie Street, to see a house that they've just finished putting together.

And if you still think he and Peg are the wrong people to save and restore the Miller House -- well, feel free to make an offer for it before their work begins. "The bidding starts at $148,000," Lou says.

A bit of Racine history goes for $710 on eBay

Too late!

Or, in the words of local historian Gerry Karwowski, "It's terrible how our heritage ends up on eBay."

Karwowski sent me a link to a just-ended eBay auction of an "Antique 19th Century Important Oil on Canvas Portrait Painting of Civil War Capt. Gilbert Knapp's wife, by Thurston Black."

We don't know Black, but we sure do know Gilbert Knapp, who founded the settlement of Port Gilbert at the mouth of the Root River in 1834. The "Gilbert" name never took, and we became Racine a few years later.

The 10-day auction got only 17 bids during its first nine days, reaching only $205. But bidding got spirited today, with 16 more bids, with the portrait finally selling for $710 as two bidders dueled it out with bids in the final 12 seconds.

REA approves proposed teachers' contract

The Racine Unified School District and the Racine Education Association announced today that they have reached a tentative contract agreement. What that means is that the membership of the REA voted in favor of the proposed contract on Thursday: actually, 97% of the teachers present voted for the agreement. The Board of Education will consider ratification on Monday, Jan. 25, during its regularly scheduled meeting.
The board and REA issued the following press release:

Tentative Agreement is a Significant Achievement
The recently negotiated tentative agreement between the Racine Unified School District and the Racine Education Association is the culmination of more than 11 months of work. This work entailed approximately 300 hours of intensive, straightforward discussions involving 20 educational professionals. These discussions focused on issues of school reform, improvement of student learning and the refinement of instructional practices in Racine. The labor agreement reflects the connection between student learning, teachers’ working conditions, compensation and effectiveness.

Teacher Professionalism
The tentative agreement includes new language that supports teachers in their role as professionals dedicated to improving learning for all students. A mastery system, based on data, will be created to improve teaching and learning as well as encourage teacher leadership in collaborative school improvement efforts. The new agreement provides for uniform elementary teacher preparation time that can be used for teacher use of data and collaboration in improvement of teaching and learning. Collaborative team teaching and inclusive practices for all students are strongly supported in the new agreement. Refinements have been made to the evaluation process in support of advancing teaching skills.

Teaching and Learning
The 2009-2010 and the 2010-2011 calendars were designed to use instructional time more effectively, recognize the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an educational role model, incorporate two snow days within the calendar and provide time for parent teacher conferences in the spring. The parties provided additional support for students with disabilities by addressing issues such as the structure of class enrollments and team teaching arrangements. Improvements have been made to the labor agreement to better address specific student learning and behavior needs.

Fair Settlement
The agreement provides increased compensation of 1.4% and 1.5% for the 2009-2010 and 2010-11 school years, respectively. The increase in compensation is within the 2009-10 budget approved by the School Board in July. The change in compensation is comparable and competitive with the Kenosha Unified School District, the Madison Metropolitan School District, and other nearby districts. Overall, Racine’s teacher salaries remain slightly below comparable school districts, but beginning salaries are competitive to attract highly qualified teacher candidates.

Health Insurance Adjustments
The new agreement addresses the rapidly increasing costs of health insurance and other benefits. A Benefit Study Committee has been established to analyze proposed cost saving measures and consider alternative benefits. A District medical clinic will be established for employees and their families to seek medical care as well as information on wellness programs. Co-payments will be increased for doctor office visits, however, the co-payments will be waived for services received at the District clinic.

This labor agreement could not have been achieved without cooperation from many professionals committed to improving the education of all children in Racine. As the professionals who negotiated this labor agreement, we are proud to be part of the Racine Unified School District and believe this agreement will improve learning for our children.

Mason backs Doyle's revision of Wisconsin Shares

Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, who got into a battle with the Racine County Board and County Executive Bill McReynolds over the county's (lax?) oversight of the (corruption-plagued?) Wisconsin Shares child care program, came out today in support of Gov. Jim Doyle's proposed fix. Given partisan politics, this should surprise nobody.

Mason issued the following press release, as Doyle and his aides were rolling out the new program, YoungStar, a $10 million effort to create a child care quality rating system:
State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, announced today his support for the new Wisconsin YoungStar program. Governor Doyle announced today the details of YoungStar, a five-star quality rating and improvement system for child care in Wisconsin. The program will link child care provider quality to payments for the Wisconsin Shares program, and will ensure that parents have the information they need to select a high quality provider for their children’s care.

YoungStar will not only enhance our ability to eliminate fraud in the Wisconsin Shares program, it will dramatically improve the quality and integrity of the system,” said Mason, a member of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, which will
take up the YoungStar plan in the coming weeks.

YoungStar’s rating system for child care providers will be based on education, learning environment, business practices, and the health and well-being of children. The program will have strong financial incentives for providers to improve, and providers will be able to access necessary training and technical assistance.

“All of the research shows that the best way to close the achievement gap is by investing in early childhood education. This proposal takes a bold step forward in reaching that goal. It will also ensure far higher returns on our investment – both in terms of the best utilization of scarce child care resources, and most importantly, in terms of education outcomes,” Mason said.

“I look forward to the discussion of, and ultimately, the approval of, this exciting new program. I intend to champion this effort; gaining approval of YoungStar will be one of my top priorities during this spring legislative session.” he concluded.

Free Tonight! Henna tattoos at Circa Celeste Cafe

Henna tattoo artist Mila Dechant is offering free tattoos tonight at Circa Celeste Cafe, 619 Wisconsin Ave., Racine. Dechant will be there at 7:30 p.m.

Mila Dechant grew up in Singapore where its customary to celebrate weddings, baby showers and festivals with temporary tattoos painted with a mixture made from Henna leaves.

When Dechant moved to Racine in 2004, she brought this beloved custom with her. She would mix Henna leaves with water, tea tree oil and sugar to create the reddish paste used to paint designs on hands, arms, backs, legs and feet. Predominantly women receive Henna tattoos, which last between two and four weeks, depending on the person.

After honing her craft in the U.S., Dechant realized late last year people will hire her to paint Henna tattoos at events. In November she started a Henna Design business and she's out promoting her services in the public.

She'll be at Circa Celeste Cafe, 619 Wisconsin Ave., tonight at 7:30 p.m. offering free Henna tattoos to anyone who comes in. Henna can stain clothing - particularly white fabric - so dress accordingly.

Dechant said her tattoos are traditional designs that can be done anywhere on the body. People at tonight's showcase can receive as many tattoos as they'd like, Dechant said.

When not painting, Dechant is a choreographer and dancer, including a bellydancer. She is also interested in natural healing, particularly how raw and natural foods can promote healing in your body.

To contact Dechant about hiring her for a party or event, you can reach her at: miladechant@gmail.com

Caledonia Historical Society seeking photos of Sturtevant Depot

Can anyone help the Caledonia Historical Society with their request?
I would like to ask if anyone has photos of the INTERIOR of the old Sturtevant Depot. The Caledonia Historical Society is putting together restoration plans and we need photos of the buildings interior to help guide us. We would prefer older (pre-1960's) shots. We will scan and return any originals if needed.

Michael E. Michna, President
Caledonia Historical Society
If you can help, contact Michael at: mich3349@wi.net

January 21, 2010

Racine Unified teachers get 1.4 percent raise in tentative contract; REA voting tonight

Teachers will receive a 1.4 percent raise this year and 1.5 percent next year under the tentative two-year contract it reached with Racine Unified, according to copy of the contract leaked to RacinePost.

Currently, teacher salaries range from $37,822 to $65,084. Under the proposed contract that would go up to $38,351 to $65,995 this year, and $38,926 to $66,985 in 2010-2011.

Racine Education Association members are scheduled to meet tonight to ratify the contract, which runs through the 2011 school year. A majority of the district's 1,600 teachers must approve the deal before it's approved.

Here are a few highlights we picked out of the tentative contract:

* Prep time for teachers is brought up in the contract. The proposal gives teachers a minimum of 360 minutes of prep time every two weeks, with the goal of 200 minutes per week and 40 minutes per day. Teachers use prep time for grading, lesson plans and other organizational tasks not possible when teaching.

* A school administrator will observe new teachers in their classrooms at least three times per year, but not more than six. Teachers in their first year must be observed within the first quarter of the school year.

* Administrators will make an effort to observe "tenured" teachers at least once per school year, but not more than six times, according to the tentative contract.

* Students get out two hours early on the last day of school.

--Teachers at the top of the salary scale with 15 years' experience would receive a $900 bonus this year, and $400 the next.

--Extra-duty stipends, which under the existing contract are paid at the end of each semester, would be paid in quarterly installments, on the 6th, 12th, 18th and 22nd paychecks of the school year.

--Teachers will pay $19 per month for single health insurance, compared to $18.29 in the 2007-2008 contract; $38 for family health insurance instead of $36.58 in the 2009-2010 school year; those rates rise to $19.75 and $39.50 in 2010-2011. Teachers' insurance copay increases from $10 to $15 unless they go to a special clinic where the copay is $0.

There's a lot more in the contract, and not being teachers, we don't know what we don't know. So take a look and if anything jumps out send us note.

SCJ -- despite profit-sharing cut -- still best place to work

Fortune magazine has, for the 10th time since 1998, recognized SC Johnson as one of the 100 best companies to work for in America.

The company fell two places in the rankings, from 81st last year to 83rd this year. Fortune notes, "For the first time in 92 years no profit-sharing checks were issued, but the household-products maker was able to stick to its 123-year-old no layoff policy."

There was no mention of the sale of 50% of JohnsonDiversey and the loss here of 200 jobs (and worldwide from 13,500 to 10,800).

Perhaps Fortune was balancing those negatives with the opening this week -- the big invitation-only party (no, we didn't get one) is Friday night -- of Fortaleza Hall, part of Project Honor with its "Community Building" for SCJ employees. The building will include -- besides the Carnauba airplane hanging overhead -- a dining room, fitness center, bank, company store and concierge service. (Not too shabby, especially in a community with 17% unemployment.)

"It is an honor to be recognized for the tenth time," said Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson. "SC Johnson has a long history of being recognized as a great place to work and we are thrilled to be on the list, especially when many companies are facing uncertainties."

Johnson Financial Group was ranked far higher than SCJ itself, coming out as the 22nd best company to work for in the U.S. (up from 25th last year). Fortune writes: "Employees who fall on hard times know they can count on Johnson for support. For instance, pay will be kept intact while an associate is out due to crisis. Says CEO Richard Hansen: JFG will always "do what is right."

SCJ was ranked 28th in Fortune's "Big Pay" listing. "Senior Research Assistants," said to be the most common job title, earn, on average, $113,381. Johnson Financial Group ranked 29th in the annual pay listing; its most common job, Commercial Relationship Manager III, earns $112,296.

Fortune's rankings are based one-third on the company's responses to questions about benefits and pay, and two-thirds on a random sample survey sent to employees.

The full story will be in Fortune's Feb. 8 issue, which is now online here. And here
is SCJ's reaction.

Racine History: Evolution of SC Johnson's Racine campus

SC Johnson will unveil its $40 million "Project Honor" building on Friday night with an exclusive gala dinner (no, we weren't invited). But in honor of SCJ's newest architectural masterpiece, we have a series of photos documenting the growth of SC Johnson's Racine campus over the past 100 years.

All photos compiled by Racine historian Gerald Karwowski from his collection at the Oak Clearing Farm and Museum. Buy Karwowski's latest book, "Racine: A Postcard History" here.

As a side note, this collection of photos kicks off a year-long project at RacinePost celebrating Racine's 175th birthday. Look for more historical photos and essays in the weeks to come.

Looking at the North east corner of 16th and Howe Street in about 1910 before the buildings were razed to build the New S. C. Johnson & Son administration building. The Victorian house next to the Leon Szczupakiewicz Schlitz Saloon was used as the company's main office from about 1903 to 1910. At left is George Stanton's barbershop.

In 1911,hand-filled cans of wax were hand packed 100 to a hand-made wooden box and hand-trucked to the shipping room where they were loaded into horse drawn drays. The wagons took the load of 100 pound crates to the dock to be shipped by water on the old Chicago-Racine-Milwaukee shipping line.

Advertising billboards and factory buildings which were located at the north east corner of Racine and 16th Streets. At this intersection the sweet smell of wax was so strong that a blind man would know they were near the Johnson Wax factories.

Frank Lloyd Wright chats during a 1930s test ordered by building inspectors to see if the lily pad columns which were a integral part of the Administration Buildings design would hold the weight they were designed for.

The Great Work Room of the Administration Building as it looked in the 1950s.

A rare view during the construction of the Johnson Research tower taken from in front of the Frank Karwowski house at 1537 Franklin Street.

A stunning night view of the S.C.Johnson& Son Research Tower Complex in 1952.

Two children admire the beautiful Johnson world globe. It was the largest of its kind when it was erected at the Racine plant in 1954.

One more aerial view.

Project Honor, SCJ's newest addition to its Racine campus. (See more photos here.)

Natural Choice: Racine's Pacific Sands simplifies cleaning products

Natural Choices Refillables is the newest product available from Racine's Pacific Sands Inc.

"Where's Curacao?" Mick Wynhoff yells to a couple of employees on the Pacific Sands' manufacturing floor in the former Hamilton Beach building on Rapids Drive in Racine.

They both shrug. A third employee jumps in and says it's an island off the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea.

Wynhoff (right) is interested in the quick geography lesson because Pacific Sands is the leading supplier of cleaning supplies to the island nation. It's not a major market - Curacao's population is about 140,000, just barely larger than eastern Racine County - but it's a sign of Pacific Sands' international reach.

The growing Racine company, which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange under the symbol PFSD, has clients in the U.S., Europe and South America. (The name Pacific Sands is a carryover from a small West Coast company Wynhoff purchased and moved to Racine. The company was traded publicly when Wynhoff purchased it.)

Pacific Sands specializes in manufacturing eco-friendly household cleaning supplies. The company's top seller is its Eco-One spa treatment system, which reduces the overall chemical load of consumer hot tubs and spas. It also produces chlorine and phosphate free laundry, dishwasher and general cleaning solutions.

Manufacturing equipment at Pacific Sands' plant in the former Hamilton Beach building
at 1509 Rapids Drive in Racine.

The company runs on a relatively small staff, but still manages to develop, test, manufacture and sell its products. Pacific Sands employs two chemists, including a former chemist at SC Johnson, and runs a small lab dedicated to removing chemicals from commonly used products.

Wynhoff, who is passionate about banishing complex compounds from home and work environments, said most of their work is common sense.

"This stuff isn't brain surgery," he said. "It just takes more thought."

Pacific Sands' latest product is an example of a "green" company converting its eco-concerns into intelligent business. Pacific Sands recently released a line of chemical-free cleaners this month called "Natural Choices Refillables."

The glass, bathroom, degreaser and multi-surface cleaning products are sold as a concentrate that consumers mix with water in a spray bottle. Wynhoff laid out a number of advantages for consumers and for Pacific Sands:

* Bottles of concentrate contain enough product to fill four spray bottles (see right). In other words, consumers are getting four bottles for the price of one. (Labels developed on the concentrate bottles show how much of the liquid to mix with water in the spray bottles.)

* The concentrate is free of harsh chemicals and chlorine, which makes for a safer environment. (Wynhoff pointed out the irony of cleaning with toxic chemicals.)

* The concentrated cleaning supplies weigh less to ship. One truckload of Pacific Sands' concentrates is equal to 32 truckloads of ready-to-use products. The reduced weight will save thousands of gallons of diesel fuel, and save Pacific Sands thousands of dollars in shipping costs.

Wynhoff said he's hopeful the product takes off as an environmentally responsible way to replace traditional cleaning supplies. If all goes well, the Natural Choices Refillables will allow Pacific Sands to continue its growth into national and international markets.

Along with helping the company expand, Wynhoff said he truly believes in the importance of removing chemicals from our everyday environments. He's thought about these issues since growing up as a Boy Scout and using bio-degradable soaps on camping trips. Mixed with Depression-era parents who learned to get the most out of everything, Wynhoff said he's in touch with the need to conserve and create healthy environments.

"Bleach, ammonia, dye, complex polymers ... we've been painting the planet with a chemical paste and soup," he said.

As a parent of three young daughters, Wynhoff said his goal is to create products he'd feel safe using around them and even letting them use.

"We're dedicated to what we do," he said, "and there's the potential to really, really succeed."

To learn more about Pacific Sands, visit their website at: http://www.pacificsands.biz/

January 20, 2010

Dickert: Mass transit is a regional issue

Talking with Mayor John Dickert this week, he offered a couple of important points about the regional transit authority proposal announced Tuesday.

1. The proposal's ultimate goal is to allow people to move around SE Wisconsin without a car. Right now, that's impossible. You can barely get around Racine on mass transit, much less get to Milwaukee, Kenosha, Chicago, etc. "You need a car," Dickert said.

2. It's really a county-wide plan. It connects Racine to Union Grove, UW-Parkside and Kenosha and Burlington to Milwaukee. This makes sense and gives people outside of the city a reason to support paying for an expanded mass transit system.

3. The state is investing billions of dollars into expanding I-94 between the Illinois state line and Milwaukee. Racine will receive little, if any, benefit from this expansion. It will only help people drive by Racine faster, Dickert mused.

4. Improving mass transit, including the addition of KRM, opens up avenues of bringing people to Racine. This will help the city.

5. The federal government is demanding a comprehensive mass transit system in SE Wisconsin, Dickert said. It won't support KRM without an improved bus system, and it won't support high-speed rail in Wisconsin without commuter rail (KRM). So, basically, the region works together on improving its mass transit system or it isolates itself from economic centers that can actually help the community.

January 19, 2010

A 10th birthday party at and for Sebastian's

Cory, Scott and Patrice Sebastian at Tuesday's party

A 10-year-old's birthday was celebrated Tuesday night, but instead of cake and ice cream the treats tended toward bowls of shrimp, fancy hors d'oeuvres and sushi.

And why not? The party was at, and for, Sebastian's Food and Spirits, which Scott and Patrice Sebastian opened exactly 10 years ago in Caledonia, in the building that had been the Spinning Wheel restaurant since the 1950s. As Patrice greeted guests and longtime customers, Scott took charge in the main dining room making such delicacies as spicy tuna roll and shrimp tempura roll, right -- all of which quickly disappeared.

Ten years ago, Scott and Patrice had a lot of help from her family -- she's originally from Mount Pleasant -- when they were renovating and planning to open. Still, not everyone thought they were making the right decision. "Ten years ago, everyone said you're not going to make it" with an upscale restaurant, Scott recalled. "People insisted we needed to add sandwiches to the menu. But I was never worried. Not once. It never entered my mind."

There was no permanent sign when the restaurant opened in 2000. The big awning over the front door that was supposed to carry the new restaurant's name was just an open metal framework; the awning itself didn't come for two months. So, tied between two trees, was a big piece of painted fabric with the message: "Opening January 19th, Sebastian's Food and Spirits."

That canvas sign was hanging in Sebastian's Tuesday night -- this time surrounded by balloons -- as part of the festive decor for the restaurant's birthday party. Joining Scott and Patrice was their daughter, Cory, who was a 12-year-old tomboy in the yellowing clipping announcing the restaurant from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel of Jan. 16, 2000. Cory, now a 22-year-old young woman, started work Tuesday as the restaurant's private events coordinator and dining room manager.

Restaurants are not easy businesses to open and run; the failure rate is very high (as anyone trying to keep track of Racine's eateries knows very well: Wilbur's Bar b que, Timothy York's Bistro, Red Lobster, Blueberries... ). And Racine is not exactly an upscale area: it wasn't ten years ago when Scott and Patrice put every cent they had into the restaurant, and it sure isn't today. Yet, Sebastian's is thriving.

What's the secret? (Besides really good food!) "We're not cheap," Scott agrees, "We have high standards, our staff has a great work ethic, and I think we put out a good value. But there's no smoke and mirrors; if we served high-priced crappy food we'd have been gone a long time ago."

Scott talks that way -- sometimes his frankness gets him into trouble -- and he has a large audience. His blog -- Salty's Kitchen -- has more fans in France than in the U.S. You never know what he'll be talking about: knives, brisket, running a restaurant, trying to save someone overcome in a fire, sushi, Top Chef...

Not everything works, of course. Scott and Patrice took over Craig and Helen's Bistro on Main Street downtown -- renaming it The Yellow Rose -- and ran it for five years before closing in 2008. "Hindsight's 20/20," Scott says. "If I could do it over again, I wouldn't. I'm a control freak, and you can't control two places at once."

But back to Sebastian's. Scott writes on his blog about the opening ten years ago: "People said we were crazy. (They were right about me anyway.) It's been one helluva decade. We survived 9/11, the housing and banking crisis, seven sous chefs, opening a second restaurant, closing it after five years, food TV, celebrity chefs, buying and selling four homes, moving four times and becoming an empty nester. Turning 50 was kinda big as well."

Thank you for ten great years! read the sign over diners in the main dining room. Few seemed to be paying attention to it -- at least not while trays of food and deserts were being passed. Everyone appeared to be looking forward to the next ten years: the cherry dumplings, the lamb, the brisket, the scallops, the truffles... Not every day, of course, or even every week. But for special occasions -- yes! A Happy Birthday indeed.

Our lawmakers unite in opposing texting while driving

The Wisconsin Assembly voted Tuesday in favor of a statewide ban on text messaging while driving. The measure passed 89-6. Here's a statement issued by Democrats Bob Turner and Cory Mason of Racine -- who (absentmindedly?) neglect to mention that Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, also voted in favor of the bill, AB496.
State Representatives Robert Turner and Cory Mason, both Racine Democrats, voted today in favor of a statewide ban on text messaging while driving. Turner and Mason are both co-sponsors of the bill, which will impose a penalty for a first offense of a fine between $100 and $400. The legislation passed the Assembly on a bipartisan 89-6 vote.

“When we’re behind the wheel, our eyes should be on the road – not on our cell phone,” said Rep. Turner. “Trying to read or type a text message is a dangerous and potentially fatal distraction for drivers.”

In 2008, almost 6,000 people died and 500,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted or inattentive drivers. In addition, driving simulation studies have shown that people are eight times more likely to crash their vehicle while they are text messaging.

“It’s just not safe for people to text while they’re driving,” said Rep. Mason. “This legislation sends a very clear message that texting behind the wheel in unacceptable – and will not be tolerated.”

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have now passed legislation to ban text messaging, including neighboring states like Illinois and Minnesota. Congress is also considering legislation that would withhold a portion of federal highway money from states that have not banned texting while driving.

The passage of the ban on text messaging while driving is only the latest action Assembly Democrats have taken to make Wisconsin roads safer. Earlier this year they approved measures that will allow police officers to ticket drivers who do not buckle up. And, in December, the Legislature passed a comprehensive drunk driving reform package which enhances penalties for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and aims to prevent repeat offenses through the use of new technology and treatment options.

Entrepreneurship scholarships available for the unemployed

The UW Parkside Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has received funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to make scholarships available to those impacted by unemployment to develop skills in entrepreneurship.

The scholarships will provide tuition and course materials coverage for individuals seeking to develop a business plan through the Small Biz business planning series offered in Kenosha beginning February 4, and in Racine, beginning March 1.

“With unemployment rates hovering at more than 10 percent, we have seen our entrepreneurship courses double in demand. Developing new businesses with job creation potential will be critical to the region’s long-term economic sustainability,” said Matthew Wagner, Ph.D., Director, UW Parkside SBDC.

It is critical that individuals contemplating starting their own business as an alternative to traditional employment receive counseling and training prior to launch, he said.

The scholarships cover tuition and course materials for the Small Biz planning series held in conjunction with the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Support Corporation (WWBIC).

Priority will be given to those impacted or soon to be impacted by difficulties within the auto industry.

“As a condition of the scholarship, recipients are required to complete the course and submit a business plan that scores high enough to meet the evaluation criteria established through the State’s Entrepreneurial Training Program,” Wagner said.

Funding from the U.S. EDA was made through a partnership involving UW Parkside, Gateway Technical College, UW Whitewater and Walworth County Economic Development Alliance.

For more information, please contact Matthew Wagner at 595-3363 or visit www.parksidesbdc.com.

Need a job? Apply to work on the Census

Need a job? The local Census is hiring - and the city needs people to take the jobs.

The government is looking for hundreds of people to conduct interviews with community residents on a temporary basis. The jobs pay about $14 an hour (plus mileage) and offer up to 40 hours per week throughout the spring. Employees work close to home and have flexible hours.

Aside from the pay, it's important work. Census .orkers collect data that helps Racine receive aid from the federal government. If Racine doesn't have enough workers, its population may be undercounted and it will receive less government money.

To get hired for a Census job you have to take a basic skills test, which includes questions that gauge your clerical, reading, number, organizational and interpretation skills. Tests can be given in Spanish, upon request.

You have to have to be a US citizen, at least 18 years old, have a valid Social Security number, a valid driver's license and you have to pass a background check.

The jobs require four days of paid training.

If you're interested, contact the Census at (866) 861-2010 or online at:

Racine Literacy Council needs tutors; 16 and up can volunteer

Kay Gregor, head of the Racine Literacy Council, sent over an urgent note this morning seeking volunteers for RLC's adult literacy programs.

"We have so many adults who are on the waiting list – it is sad to put them on a year’s waiting list," she wrote. "Reminder: high school students 16 or older make great tutors."

Here's the council's full press release about its need for tutors:

The Racine Literacy Council (RLC) is in need of volunteers to tutor adults who want to learn English or improve basic literacy skills. We have a shortage of tutors and are offering an additional informational meeting on Tuesday, January 26 at 6: 30 p.m. at the Racine Literacy Council, 734 Lake Ave. Persons interested in becoming a tutor with the Racine Literacy Council Adult Tutoring Program are encouraged to attend the one hour meeting to learn about the tutoring experience.

According to Kay Gregor, Executive Director, the need is most apparent with 96 adults on the waiting list. Some have been waiting since March 2009. Last week a woman came in referred by Head Start. Unfortunately, she will have to wait almost a year before she can take the RLC placement exam. Even learners who have taken the placement exam have to wait a bit longer. One woman who went through the intake process in September is hoping that she will have a tutor soon. She wants to improve her English so she can get a promotion at work, to understand her children better when they speak English, and to be able to write checks.

Noted Gregor, “Often there is a misconception that a tutor needs to be able to speak another language, like Spanish, to be a tutor. This is not true. All instruction is done in English and the tutor training makes it possible.” The RLC program has served people from 25 different countries over the past several years. There are also 20 adults waiting for a tutor to help them work towards their GED and to improve basic reading and writing skills. Last year 355 adult received tutoring, with 128 volunteer tutors.

This is an exciting time at the RLC, as the organization will soon have additional tutoring space in the newly remodeled lower level. The agency is in the process of completing the renovation of the basement at the RLC building. This will add three new classrooms, a computer lab, and additional tutoring space. It is slated to be completed by March 1. The project is being paid for by funds from the Johnson Fund, a City Community Development Block Grant, UW Parkside Capacity Building Grant for Non- Profits, and contributions from many individuals.

The next tutor training takes place on the first three Saturdays in February: 6, 13, and a half day on February 20 at the Racine Literacy Council. The training covers how to work with an adult learner, an introduction on how to teach reading and writing to adults, techniques to teach English to non-native speakers, and a review of the books and materials used in the program. No teaching experience is needed. The obligation after the training is to work with an adult learner for two hours per week. The day and time for the tutoring is set by the tutor and students schedule. Tutoring may take place from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday – Thursday at the RLC. Other tutoring locations include churches and public libraries throughout Racine County. For more information call the RLC at (262) 632-9495 or check the website at www.racineliteracy.com.

Biz News: Small business planning series offered

UW-Parkside's Small Business Development Center is hosting business planning series in Racine and Kenosha this spring.

The 14-week class, presented in partnership with the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) is designed to walk you step by step through the business planning process so you will know what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Topics include:

* Keys to your business success
* Product & Price
* Assessing your business idea
* Placement & Promotion
* Business Planning
* E-Commerce
* Market Plan
* Selling Success
* Government Regulations
* Where's the cash?
* Management
* Managing the Money
* Market Analysis
* Financial Tips & Tools

"Small Biz Kenosha" will hold its orientation on Thursday, Feb. 4 from 6-8pm at WWBIC's Kenosha office, 600 52nd St., Suite 130. Classes will run Thursdays from 6-9pm from Feb. 11 to April 15.

"Small Biz Racine" will hold its orientation on Monday, March 1 from 6-8pm at CATI, 2320 Renaissance Blvd. in Sturtevant. Classes will be held Mondays from 6-9pm from March 8 to June 7.

To register, call (262) 898-7438 or email: kspranger@racinecountyedc.org

For more information on UW-Parkside's Small Business Development Center, visit:

Occupancy Permits: Cafe planned in former YWCA building

Here's a recap of the December occupancy permits issued in the city:

* Robert Stoewe is opening a light manufacturing business at 1507 Goold St. He applied for an occupancy permit on Dec. 3, 2009.

* Brad Leak is opening a Liberty Tax Preparation Office at 1500 State St. He applied for an occupancy permit on Dec. 7, 2009.

* Roberta Schulz is opening a new restaurant, Caliente, at 600 Sixth St. She applied for an occupancy permit on Dec. 8, 2009.

* Servantez Properties Inc. is opening Servantez Automotive at 1407 S. Memorial Drive. They applied for an occupancy permit on Dec. 10, 2009.

* Benito De Santiago is opening the "Courthouse Cafe" at 740 College Ave. He applied for an occupancy permit on Dec. 14, 2009.

* Ramon and Lucy Garcia are opening Superior Convenience Store at 5502 Durand Ave. They applied for an occupancy permit on Dec. 16, 2009.

* Johny Massih is opening a Jackson Hewitt Tax Office at 2050 Taylor Ave. He applied for an occupancy permit on Dec. 22, 2009.

Occupancy permits are a one-time permit required by the city before a business can move into a building. Permits do not necessarily remodeling is complete on the building or that the business is open.

January 18, 2010

Mason: Proposal removes toxins from schools; Doesn't give any company a monopoly

Mike Sheridan, Cory Mason, Brian Torner, Robert Israel,
Jane Finkenbine and Jeff Neubauer at bill's introduction Sept. 25, 2009

Rep. Cory Mason said the "green cleaning" bill he introduced is about reducing toxicity in schools, not creating a monopoly for a Racine company.

"This bill makes it less toxic for kids in schools and the people who use public buildings," Mason said Monday afternoon. "The question we should be asking is, 'Is this a good bill? Is it a good idea?' "

Instead, Mason has been fielding calls today about a Madison TV station's report that Jeff Neubauer, a former Racine legislator who is now CEO of Kranz Inc., wrote the legislation and coordinated its release. WKOW-TV reports on its website:
State records show a former lawmaker helped mold an environmental bill with potential financial benefits for his firm and industry.


The correspondence indicates Neubauer originated and reviewed portions of the bill.

"Attached please find the final language," Neubauer wrote on Sept. 22, 2009 to Mason aide Michelle Michalak and lobbyist Jason Childress.

"Announce and release the bill in the form that is attached on Friday," Neubauer wrote.

"Nothing but good publicity will come from that. It is no lose, all upside for you."
That led Racine County Republicans to pounce on Mason. Bill Folk, president of the county party, said in a press release:
This is simply unacceptable. The people of the 62nd Assembly District elected Cory Mason, not Jeff Neubauer to represent them. Mr. Neubauer's interest in this legislation, as well as his contributions to Mason, clearly show that there was a conflict that should have been clearly outlined prior to the introduction of the legislation.
Mason said he never hid the fact that he worked with Neubauer and Kranz Inc. and JohnsonDiversey. In fact, Neubauer and a representative from JohnsonDiversey each testified at a public hearing on the legislation, and responded to questions about whether the bill unfairly favored Neubauer's company.

Mason said he exchanged notes with Neubauer on the bill, but he also consulted school officials, parents, students and environmental groups. He added that a handful of states, including Illinois, have passed similar legislation.

Kranz Inc. features a line of "Kranz Green" products that may qualify under the program. But Mason said hundreds of U.S. companies offer products that would qualify for use in schools and public buildings under the bill. The legislation was actually written to encourage companies to follow the lead of Wisconsin companies like JohnsonDiversey and Wausau Papers, which are making some of the greenest, healthiest products on the market, Mason said.

"It's not factually true to say one company gets a monopoly or special treatment under the bill," Mason said.

Changes are underway to the legislation, which Mason said he hopes appeals to a bi-partisan majority. The bill is scheduled to be taken up by the Assembly next week.

"I hope the bill stands on its merits," Mason said. "It's really designed to encourage the private sector to create greener, healthier products."

Update: Jeff Neubauer donated $300 to Mason's campaign over the last three years.

Biz News: Johnson Financial Group employees volunteer on MLK Day

Johnson Financial Group, the parent company of Johnson Bank and Johnson Insurance Services will celebrate their Success and Profit Sharing event different than in years past.

"In light of the recent economic crisis and all that's happening in the banking industry, our associates asked us not to spend money on the traditional gathering we've had for years," said Richard Hansen, President and CEO of Johnson Financial Group. "But instead, associates asked if they could volunteer their time at various charities across the state of Wisconsin on Martin Luther King Day? I was so proud to hear that."

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, which is typically a holiday for the associates because the banks are closed, over 1,000 Johnson Bank associates in Wisconsin will volunteer their time in regional communities where Johnson Bank has a presence.

From volunteering at local food banks in southeastern Wisconsin, to making quilts for the Linus Project in south central Wisconsin, to working for Habitat for Humanity in northwest Wisconsin, the associates are making an effort at more than 30 charities in the state. They also started Operation JFG Cares, where associates are putting together care packages for the U.S. Military Troops.

Johnson Financial Group's Racine employees worked on the following projects:

Operation JFG Cares – putting together care packages for our

* Empty Bowls – painting/designing a bowl at Fired Up! To be donated to the Empty Bowls event in March

* Habitat for Humanity – assisting on one of the current Racine sites

* Racine County Food Bank – sorting and boxing food

* Wheel-ie Wacky Scarves and Hats – making scarves and hats to be donated to children’s or homeless programs

* Valentines for Veterans Senior Citizens – making Valentines cards for the Veterans Home and local senior citizen homes

* Hospice baskets

* Making baskets for Orphan Canines, Love & Charity, and Halo

A Day of Action: Celebrating Martin Luther King in Racine

Volunteers at 905/903 Hamilton Street, where a crew demolished
a garage to make room for a new COP House.

Here's a few photos from MLK Day in Racine. The event drew 200 kids and 30 chaperones for a day of volunteering and workshops. The community celebration was created after Racine Unified agreed to give students the day off to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was designed as an alternative to a just a "day off" of school for students.

Rebecca Brown, a sophomore at Horlick High School, organizes clothes at St. Vincent's de Paul. Brown said she volunteered to honor Dr. King. "It's a better way to honor his legacy," she said.

Edward Fitch, a junior at Horlick, Katie Husson, a student at UW-Parkside, and Rachael Morawicz, working at St. Vincent de Paul.

Volunteers at Ridgewood did arts and crafts with the residents.
They also performed manicures and played Wii.

Erica Montgomery, a junior at Case High School, does a resident's nails.

Brittany Harris, a sophomore at Case, helped a resident create a collage.

A group of 20 volunteers helped demolish the garage on Hamilton Street.

Volunteers cut the metal framing that's supporting the garage.
Another volunteer donated a bobcat to bulldoze the structure.

Dave Voss, who works at the Volunteer Center of Racine County,
organized the demolition of the garage.

Students built a snow family outside of the windows at the Becker-Shoop nursing home. The residents watched them build the snow sculptures, and then visited with the volunteers. (Above) Clare Thompson and Allison Dikanovic, both freshmen at Horlick High School, visit with a Becker-Shoop resident.

The snow family visible from a sitting room at Becker-Shoop.

Madison Azarian and Brianna Fehlberg, both freshmen at Horlick High School, volunteered at Becker-Shoop.

Volunteers gathered at Memorial Hall on Monday morning before heading
out to their volunteer assignments.

'Liberal' media

The JT's main front page story Sunday was about the local Tea Party's bonfire in Caledonia. We also covered the bonfire (Pete provided, arguably, the most extensive coverage of the event), which was big news. Any time 3,000 people get together for political action, it's a meaningful event.

The JT didn't rest with coverage of the bonfire, though. They ran a second front page story on a 'voter ire' with Obama, particularly in Massachusetts where Republican Scott Brown holds a slight lead over Democrat Martha Coakley.

If that's not enough, opening the Sunday paper to page 3A finds two more anti-Obama stories covering the whole page. One has the headline, "Hope dissolves into disappointment," and a second story on the same page is headlined, "Poll shows growing disappointment with Obama's first-year performance." Catch a theme there? Obama is a "disappointment."

If the majority of the first three pages of the news section wasn't enough space dedicated to documenting the president's struggles, the Business page's lead story is about local construction contractors upset over Congress' proposed health care reforms.

And the paper's Sunday editorial attacked Democrats for picking on the tanning and "Bo-Tox" industries and making other deals to get the health care reforms passed.

For at least one day, and probably many more to come, hopefully we can rest the idea of the "liberal" media.

January 17, 2010

Racine's Your Yoga Lifestyle hosts benefit for local animal shelters

Your Yoga Lifestyle, a great supporter of RacinePost, is hosting a wonderful event next weekend that can help invigorate your health while benefiting homeless animals. Admission is free at the yoga studio, 518 College Ave., on Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with the donation of pet food or supplies needed by local animal shelters.

Here's a full press release from Your Yoga Lifestyle about the helping, and helpful, community event:
RACINE, WI – The entire community is invited to participate in Yoga Day USA – Racine to renew, relax, and rejuvenate and help homeless animals at the same time.

Admission for the day is free with a pet food or supply item needed by area animal shelters. Yoga Day USA – Racine is from 7 a.m. to 5:30 pm. Saturday at Your Yoga Lifestyle, 518 College Avenue in Racine.

“The reason we celebrate Yoga Day USA is to bring yoga to the entire community while also helping animals who don’t have a loving home of their own,” said Linda Messerschmidt, owner of Your Yoga Lifestyle.

Hosted by both Your Yoga Lifestyle and the Racine Arts Council, Yoga Day USA – Racine will include a variety of yoga classes taught by instructors from Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee. Michael Bootzin will play live music during select classes, participants can enjoy a specially discounted lunch at Circa Celeste as well as free chair massages by massage therapists, and free herbal tea throughout the day. Wellness items and services will be up for silent auction, with proceeds going to the Racine Arts Council.

“This is an exciting partnership,” Messerschmidt said of YYL and the Racine Arts Council. “We’re able to benefit so much of our community through Yoga Day USA that I hope this becomes an annual event.”

Local animal shelters are feeling the pinch of the current economic climate and are most in need of food, cat litter, and blankets. Cash donations are also welcome to help pay for the veterinary care and medicine so many shelter animals need immediately after being rescued.

“Yoga Day USA is the perfect opportunity to practice karma yoga, which means that instructors can help others by teaching the health benefits of yoga and encouraging these same people to do for others,” Messerschmidt added. “For Yoga Day USA – Racine, that means donations for our local animal shelters.”

Your Yoga Lifestyle offers a variety of yoga classes for students of
every level, from a beginner’s program to an advanced, Ashtanga class.

YYL also offers lifestyle workshops, retreats, seminars and a corporate wellness program.

Contact Linda Messerschmidt, Your Yoga Lifestyle, 518 College Avenue; Racine, WI 53403; (262) 880-4044; www.youryogalifestyle.net.

Racine's winter wonderland

Fog that descended on Racine Saturday night turned into a sparkling coat of ice Sunday morning. Anyone outside early this morning got the treat of a walk through a winter wonderland. Photos taken by Marie Block on the grounds of the DeKoven Center in Racine.