April 17, 2010

The cartoon @ RacinePost.com

West Racine features art of many different sorts

Don Vander Leest discusses his landscapes with West Racine Art Walk visitors

Art is where you find it. Saturday it was in West Racine, in some unusual places.

Various artists were ensconced in some of the retail stores -- The Red Bell, Nelson's Variety, Commitments, for example. But there also was artistry of a different sort at Larsen Bakery, Gethsemane Lutheran Church and the storefront that used to be Riley's Sweet Shop. All you had to do was join the shoppers wandering from store to store during the West Racine Art Walk to find it.

Here's some of what we saw (and none of it involved the news (or non-news) about the potential gas station / restaurant that may (or may not) locate at the corner of Washington and West Blvd.              

 Copy Cat music was graced by two artists: painter Don Vander Leest displayed prints and paintings inside, and guitarist Daniel Robinson played outside, entertaining shoppers walking by.Vander Leest said he's been painting  since he was in the third grade. As for selling: "The exchange of money just keeps me in paint and paper," he said with a smile. "The greatest satisfaction is when people find something that graces their house. That's what I love."

In The Red Bell, a store full of children's toys and crafts,  sat artist and teacher Nancy Justus, a former painter now working a new medium: fibre art. She was sitting in the entryway, sewing a large fabric piece, one she said would take her at least three weeks to complete. "I've been accused of being hyper-active. It's so satisfying when it's done," she laughed. She stopped long enough to display the piece to three-year-old Anna Johnson and her mother, right.

In Johnson's Home Furnishings store, well-known landscape and lighthouse painter Jean Thielen displayed a wall of photos, and talked to a steady stream of fans. But in the moments between visitors, she sat quietly sketching the beginnings of a new painting -- a commissioned portrait of a young boy adopted from Russia. Photos of the boy and his brother are behind Thielen.

Nelson's Variety Store had something different as well: Harold Solberg held forth at the lathe, turning small bowls and explaining his work methods to fascinated onlookers. One interesting tip: When he turns the inside of a bowl, Solberg's lathe rotates in reverse, so he gets a better look at what his turning chisels are accomplishing.

Larsen Bakery had an unadvertised special. Oh, there was a visiting artist in the store -- a jewelry maker alongside the display cases with tasty treats -- but I was more interested in what I glimpsed through their window, in the back room behind the bakery showroom. Working quietly and alone decorating a variety of beautiful cakes, was a young woman wearing a Muslim head scarf. She turned out to be Beth Sharid, 30, who grew up in Kuwait and Iraq, living through invasions by both Saddam Hussein and American troops.

She comes from a family big enough by current standards for an American TV show: eight brothers and four sisters. "Enough kids to take care of me in my old age," her father said. Beth came to Racine 10 years ago (following a brother who came to the U.S. to study engineering in 1995.) Her artistry crosses borders as well: She started drawing as a little girl, and later became a professional seamstress. At Larsen's for 18 months, she makes pastries and desserts -- and decorates special cakes.

And now for something else unexpected: In the former Riley's Sweet Shop -- now an Hispanic storefront church -- is a large scale model of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus. The model will be there for awhile, so be sure to stop in.

And finally, art of yet another different sort, found deliciously in the kitchen of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, where the annual aebleskiver breakfast was under way. Wearing their Danish flag aprons, women of the church turned out hundreds of the spherical, apple slice pancakes -- and had trouble keeping up with the demand. Here, Trudy Rozzoni pokes the latest batch, telling them to hurry. Once the breakfast crowd was sated, the cooks moved on to meatballs for lunch.

Art can be so satisfying!

RANDOLPH BRANDT: How Wall Street sunk your house

By Randolph Brandt

A couple of years ago – before the nation’s financial collapse in the final days of the Bush administration – I ran into a now-former Racine mayor, who shall remain nameless, but he was coming out of a bar.

I’d met this mayor a couple of times before, so I felt emboldened enough to mention to him that I was a little concerned that the tax assessment on my relatively modest home had just been increased exponentially, on top of a similarly exponential increase the year before.

“Complain to me when your assessment (and hence, its value) goes down,” the then-mayor replied.

Well, that mayor’s not in office anymore, but a letter this week from the city assessor notified me that my tax assessment finally did go down — by a little more than 2 percent — at a time when I read on Racine Post that housing values may actually be down by as much as 25-30 percent in Racine.

Thanks a lot. By that measure, I’m 2 percent ahead, but 30 percent behind.

It’s my bet you are, too.

The new bunch in City Hall probably will make up the difference in tax revenue with a higher tax rate anyway; meanwhile, there are nearly a dozen homes still on the market in my neighborhood, unsold for many months, despite the “price reduced” addendums tacked onto all the real estate signs.

Whether you’re a Tea Partier or not, it’s time to complain about this situation, and demand financial reform.

How did this happen? How did the largest personal investment in my portfolio — my home — suddenly become unmarketable, or at least only marketable at a significantly reduced price that’s considerably less than I’d been counting on to help pay for my retirement?

Rather than ask the new mayor again (which probably wouldn’t help anyway), I ‘d like to ask Goldman Sachs instead.

There are lots of people in line to ask questions of Goldman Sachs, including several congressional investigatory panels and the newly empowered Securities and Exchange Commission, so I don’t really expect any direct answers from Goldman Sachs anytime soon.

Right now, they’re just denying everything, insisting only that they’re not crooks.

So, I’m left to figure out this major nationwide financial collapse myself.

The explanation goes something like this:

Unlike the stock market, much of the bond market is virtually unregulated by the SEC. Therefore, entities such as Goldman Sachs and other “investment” banks are basically free to invent exotic derivatives to bring to market based on extremely questionable investments, such as packaged, worthless subprime mortgages, and to sell them to unsuspecting retirees and other investors, like you and me.

Since there’s currently no meaningful federal regulation prohibiting this type of fraud, they just went ahead and perpetrated it.

They also knew from the get-go that because they control so much of the nation’s wealth, they ultimately would be deemed “too big to fail,” and that no matter what the risks, the federal government would have no choice but to bail them out or face the country’s financial ruin.

It’s just another example of audacity, not of hope, but of hubris – powerful financial manipulators convinced that no matter what their decisions, there would be a private return for them shielded by socialized risk for everyone else.

If they were right, they’d get rich beyond avarice. If they were wrong, no matter – the rest of the people would have to pay them off anyway.

But it gets even worse. Not only did these Wall Street investment houses knowingly sell worthless bonds to millions of people, but at the same time, they placed alternative bets for themselves —called shorts — expecting those supposedly “triple-A” bond investments they sold to everybody else to fail, so they’d stand to reap billions either way, win or lose.

So, they made money on you and me by knowingly selling those worthless bonds on the open market, while at the same time, they were betting against the bonds’ performance on a private, secret market that is, unlike common stocks, unregulated by the federal government.

They simply couldn’t lose in this rigged game, but you and I did. It caused the housing market to collapse and along with it, the rest of the economy as well.

Back in the day when the mob ran the numbers racket, people would bet on a number, like 1-2-3, based on the possible finishers at the track, and the number would pay off or not, depending upon how well somebody happened to pick the winner.

But nobody anywhere in the chain really knew for certain which horses would finish in which order, so at least the game was, more or less, honest.

If the action on any one number sequence got too great for one bookmaker to risk, they’d simply “lay off” a portion of the bet to other bookies, just in case somebody got so lucky on a big score that a single bookie couldn’t handle it all.

Wall Street, in this instance, did just about the same thing. Goldman Sachs “laid off” the betting action to certain preferred accomplices, hedge fund operators who helped design the scheme.

The only difference between the mob and Wall Street in this instance, however, was that while the mob never really knew which horses would actually win at the track, the hedge fund operators already knew which horses in their packaged securities were lame. They knew the bad bonds from the good ones, and they helped Goldman Sachs pick the bad ones to sell to unsuspecting investors.

They already knew that the “favorite to show” would come in dead last, but they sold people tickets to win anyway, while secretly betting against the favorite themselves.

Whereas such “fixes” among numbers runners would have earned you a pair of cement shoes in the Hudson River or a shallow grave in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the same standard of dishonesty among the Wall Street mob now earns you millions of dollars a year in preferred bonuses.

That’s fraud, and that’s what the Obama administration wants to punish now and prevent in the future.

Ironically, the mores of the mob were, in comparison, more pristine than those of the current syndicates on Wall Street.

If that’s not a clarion call for financial reform, nothing is.

(Randolph D. Brandt is a retired newspaper editor living in Racine, Wis.)

April 16, 2010

Youth As Resources makes three grants

Youth As Resources granted $2,454 today to three youth-led, youth-designed community service projects.

Members of Girl Scout Troop 5536 will create a perennial garden featuring over thirty plant species native to Wisconsin in their project, “Medicine Wheel Garden.” The garden, located at the Eco-Justice Center in Caledonia, will be 25 feet in diameter and will be planted in quadrants using color combinations found in traditional Native American medicine wheel gardens. Rock paths will lead to a peace pole in the center of the garden.

Youth from Racine Family Literacy will promote cultural awareness and inter-generational friendship through their project, “Joining Generations Fiesta.” They will serve an authentic Mexican meal and play traditional games with the residents of St. Monica’s Senior Home. The fiesta will feature live music performed by the youth and information about Mexican culture and Cinco de Mayo.

Girl Scout Troop 5754’s project, “Dogs and Cats Galore,” will support the animals at Countryside Humane Society. The girls will create and distribute brochures about pet care issues at one of Countryside’s vaccination clinics, and will make seven pet beds for animals waiting to be adopted. While helping at shelter, the girls will help soothe the animals by reading books to them. The books  to be read include The Cat in the Hat and Harry Potter. The scouts will also make pet care kits with homemade pet toys and treats to be sent home with newly adopted dogs and cats.

The next YAR grant deadline is Friday, April 30, at 4:30 p.m. YAR offers free grantwriting workshops to youth and adults. For more information, or to obtain a grant application, go online here or contact program coordinator Jessica Safransky at 898-2251. Youth groups from Racine County are invited to apply for up to $1,000 to fund a community service project that addresses a specific community need. The projects must be led, designed, and implemented by youth through age 24.

Gerald Buck celebrates 40 years
as organist for First Presbyterian Church

You may know him best as the man who plays the calliope in the Racine Fourth of July Parade, but Gerald Buck is known at First Presbyterian Church as Jerry, and is the only organist most of the member have known. This May the historic pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church will ring with Buck’s talent as he celebrates over 40 years as the church organist. To mark the event, Buck commissioned an organ composition by Janet Linker, a well-known composer of organ hymn tune variations and bell choir selections.

Buck is known for playing hymn variations to match the opening hymn for the services and he commissioned Linker to write variations on “Lift High the Cross,” a vigorous hymn beloved by the congregation and not tied to a specific time in the liturgical year. Buck will play several of the Linker variations during the prelude, offertory and postlude during the May 2 service.

Buck is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University with degrees in physics. He had a 45-year teaching career in physics, musical acoustics, and chemistry. He spent 23 years at The Prairie School, where he was also science department chair.

In addition to the pipe organ, Buck also plays piano, saxophone and woodwinds. He played oboe in high school, college, and military bands. Since 1994 he has maintained and played the calliope in Racine's July 4th parade.

Buck’s family is filled with musicians. His wife, Nancy, directs the hand bell choir at First Presbyterian and two of their children have careers in music. Daughter Jennifer teaches strings in the Mesa, Arizona, school system and is a freelance cellist; son Peter is a jazz drummer, composer and college instructor in Los Angeles.

First Presbyterian's organ has quite a history of its own, with some of it dating  back 143 years.

It's a 3 manual., 33-rank pipe organ.  The church's original pipe organ was a 2 manual instrument built by the Johnson Organ Co. of Boston and installed in 1867 in the balcony, between the pillars.  In 1885 it was moved to the front of the church.

The instrument was completely rebuilt in 1935 by the Besch Co. of Milwaukee, reusing several ranks of pipes from the original Johnson.  The middle part of the case, housing three groups of pipes, is the original Johnson case.  That this case survives is noted in a history of the Johnson organs, published by the Organ Historical Society.  In 1971 several ranks of pipes were added, and in 1988 a new console was installed. More recently, coinciding with the rebuilding of the chancel, the console was rebuilt and moved to the side, permitting the full stage to be used by performing groups.

Celebrating 175 years: West Racine

This view is looking west on Washington Avenue from West Boulevard. The first block shown in this view was razed in recent years for redevelopment. A gas station is planned for the site. 
Photo courtesy  racinehistory.com

By Gerald Karwowski, racinehistory.com

West Racine as we know it today dates back to the 1890s, when pioneer farms in the area were being sub-divided for businesses and residences.

The early history of area dates back to the mid-1800s when there were plank roads and pioneer homesteads. One of the earliest settlers was a man named William Bull. In the 1840s, Bull built a fine home on the Southside of the Territorial Road (Washington Avenue). The main floor of the home was spacious, and laid out with a fireplace in each of its east and west rooms. The staircase banister, spindles, and newell post were produced from a walnut log found near the Rapids (Horlick’s Dam) and were made by the Lucas Bradley Planning Mill. During the Gold Rush of 1849, Bull and another pioneer took off to California to seek their fortunes.

This rare photo c.1910, of a young boy and his dog on the front porch of the Nicholas D. Fratt mansion was taken by Racine photographer Wilfred G. Marshall. The south end of the electric railroad depot passenger platform roof and Mound Cemetery are in the background. Photo courtesy racinehistory.com

Before Bull left, he leased his farm to a Mr. Rose who converted the first floor of the home into a tavern. The upper floor of the house was unfinished so Rose proceeded to construct 11-rooms, two central rooms that were surrounded by nine sleeping rooms. On a post at the side of the road was a sign picturing a large bull’s head. This tavern would be an oddity today because West Racine has been a dry area for decades. The law at the top of the list in West Racine is, "There shall be no taverns in West Racine."
William Bull’s daughter Frances Gibson, poses with the old William Bull  homestead (Bull’s Head Tavern) in the back ground. ca. 1923. The historic  building was located at the south west corner of Washington and Grove Avenues. 
Photo courtesy  racinehistory.com 

In the early 1850s plank roads were becoming popular. According to Racine’s first city directory published in 1850 by Mark Miller "The first Plank Road within the limits of our young and flourishing state, is through their energy completed as far as Rochester and Burlington - 30 miles out. Pay as you go, is their adopted motto, both in their individual and corporate capacity."

Oak planks were used because they withstood wear better than pine, but the roads still needed repair often. If a person wanted to drive a vehicle on the road he would have to pay a toll of 25 to 40 cents. Other charges were 4 cents a mile for twenty cows or 3 cents a mile for twenty sheep or swine.

There was also a ten dollar fine for evading the toll.

In 1851, the Rock River Plank Road Company purchased 1/4 acre next to the school property ( Blaine and Washington Avenue) and built a toll gate house. According to records at the Register of Deeds’ office the property was sold back to Nicholas D. Fratt in 1861. Later the Toll house was bought by Charles Reed, who moved it to his farm located on the northwest corner of Washington and Lathrop Avenue. The building was converted into a home and still stands at 1128 Lathrop Ave.

This rare photo shows the old Racine & Rock River Plank Road Co.  toll gate house  after it was moved to the Charles Reed farm in the 1860s  and converted into a home (now) 1128 Lathrop Avenue. The building originally  stood on the north side of the Plank Road (Washington Avenue) where Blaine Avenue intersects. Later the home was totally remodeled  and the farm land was sub- divided creating what is known as  Man-Ree Park. 
Photo courtesy  Hattie Reed La Mack/racinehistory.com   

Toll roads were short lived. Even while the roads were constructed, Racine along with other communities began to get railroad fever.

Nicholas D. Fratt, President of the First National Bank of Racine, purchased the Weed farm of approximately 200 acres in 1855. Fratt named the farm Sylvan Dell, after the Sylvan Creek which flowed through the property. All that remains of the creek today is a small lagoon at Mound Cemetery.

The large cream brick Fratt mansion was located about were the old Piggly Wiggly parking area was. Fratt sold the mansion and property in 1892. The home was later used to house the West branch of the Racine YMCA.

Today the business section houses furniture sales, bakeries, restaurants and other numerous small businesses.

This view looks east on Washington Avenue from the intersection of Hayes Avenue about 1940. The West Racine business district had all the things needed to sustain the area residents. There were barber shops, meat markets, grocery stores and three drugstores operating all at the same time. It was also the home of a number of quality bakeries that made the famous Danish pastry "Kringle." For decades West Racine businessmen hosted "Western Days." The event featured a parade and contests all done in a western style. Store owners and clerks would wear western clothing while assisting customers during the annual sidewalk sales 
Photo courtesy racinehistory.com 

During the 1930s Christensen operated this Standard Oil Company station at the NE corner of Washington and Lathrop Avenues for many years. A time in history the filling station attendant would fill your gas, check your oil, wash your windows and air up your tires. It was truly an era when every customer was a valued asset.  
Photo courtesy  racinehistory.com 

Can't beat the price: City buying Deane Blvd. home for $1

You can't beat the purchase price on 1922 Dean Blvd. This quaint one-story home in an attractive neighborhood between West Boulevard and Taylor Avenue is selling for $1. 

The city purchased the foreclosed home from the county for a buck. Of course, the house is a major fixer-upper, but there are usable pieces, said Jean Wolfgang, an associate planner in the city development department. 

As it stands now, the house is unlivable. It has big holes in the roof and the interior has mold issues from water damage. But the foundation is in good shape and the site plan is workable, Wolfgang said. The city plans to work with Habitat for Humanity knock down the house to its first-floor decking and rebuild a single-family home on the foundation. 

Wolfgang said there are many "wins" with this house. The county is saving about $10,000 by not having to demolish the home, the city removes a blighted property from a nice neighorhood and Habitat uses its volunteer labor to provide an affordable home to a family with a no-interest mortgage, she said.

The city and county are in the final stages of working out the property transfer. Along with the $1 purchase price, the city will pay about $4,500 in outstanding taxes, special assessments and fees. 

Once the city secures the property, Habitat will make a presentation to the city's Loan Review Board including design and cost. If the board approves, work will begin on building the new home. 

Photo-Top: 1922 Deane Blvd.
Photo-Middle-Right: The home's roof is in rough shape. 
Photo-Bottom-Right: The surrounding neighborhood is filled with charming, single-family homes.

April 15, 2010

R.I.P. Window-shopping at Porters ends April 26

Surely, my memory is playing tricks, but I distinctly remember my first visit to Porters soon after I moved to Racine in 1995. My wife and I walked through the store, admiring the furniture and room settings. Then we  came upon a particularly beautiful dining room table, china cabinet and six chairs.

Idly I reached for the price tag on one of the chairs; it said $4,000, more or less. "Wow," I said. "That's a nice dining room set, but $4,000 is way out of our price range!" My wife gave me that look -- one I've come to recognize many times over the years. It means, "You idiot; I can't take you anywhere." And so I looked again at the price tag, and discovered that $4,000 was the price of one chair. Whoops.

Sadly, I won't have to worry about being embarrassed by the price of quality furniture any more, at least not on Sixth Street. Porters has been holding its Going Out of Business sale for three months now, and it announced today that its final day will be April 26. The store is 152 years old, a victim of either the national economy or the two-year reconstruction of Sixth Street outside its front door that didn't end until last November. (It was Bob and Micah Waters of Porters who were handed the  time capsule for burial at the ceremonial finish of that reconstruction. Ah, the irony.)

Many other, lesser, Downtown stores blamed their failure on the economy or the roadway disruption. But Porters' problem dates back further. The monied class -- Racine once had plenty, as each of those industrial giants that once stamped out tractors, cars, wagons, office furniture, malted milk, lawn mowers, small appliances -- was run by executives, the folks who built those mansions along Main Street and Lake Michigan. Well that was then, this is now. The factories are mostly gone, along with the executives who shopped at Porters and the factory workers who just window-shopped. The store could not depend upon Chicagoans venturing north in their Benzes and Cadillacs.

First floor display in March, left

The Aug. 12, 1938, front page of the Journal Times -- it's framed and  hanging in the store's showroom -- heralded the Porter Furniture Company's move to Sixth Street, with a three-column picture and the lede story.  The business was already 80 years old when Ted Gottlieb, president, sat down in his lawyer's office to sign the papers buying "five old rat trap buildings"  owned by the Wisconsin Gas & Electric Company -- 120 ft. of frontage on Sixth Street and 88 feet on South Wisconsin --  in "an area described as one of the most desirable business districts in the city."

The story didn't say how much Gottlieb paid for the property, which needed extensive remodeling. (It's doubtful the price would seem like much today; the paper itself carried a price of 4 cents.) But it did say the sale was "the biggest deal of its kind in ten years." Well, yeah; ten years earlier the Great Depression began.

Gottlieb said: "We will erect a store, which from the standpoint of beauty and skillful planning for merchandising, will compare favorably with any store in the country, including those in metropolitan areas." The store was already known for its outstanding window displays -- even though it had only 40' of window in its Main Street store, one door down from the old Rialto Theatre; Gottlieb was looking forward to having 208' of windows with which to entice us to come inside. Entice they did: when the store reopened in 1939, 40,000 people toured the store, according to the company history. "People would line up around the block... for  the yearly unveiling of the Guild Galleries," says the store's history, showing a lovely picture of the waiting crowds.

And now it's all-but-over. I went through the store last month, and already many of the displays were gone. Lots of fine furniture remained, all sporting big discounts that were still not enough to bring much into my price range. A $45,000 Oriental rug for $19,000; a bedroom suite that once went for $26,000 now going for under $13,000. Yes, a visit to Porters was often like that; the unreachability overshadowed the fine workmanship.

Still, I'll miss it. It's always nice to be able to dream.

The Aug. 12, 1938, Journal Times announced Porters' arrival on Sixth Street

April 14, 2010

Settlement ends Becker-Tingle era in Racine politics

Sandra Tingle's allegations of "physical contact" by former Mayor Gary Becker led the city to settle her sexual harassment lawsuit.

The settlement approved by the City Council last week gives no details of the alleged contact, and the city denied all knowledge of the contact in the settlement. But the allegation was strong enough to convince the city to pay Tingle $20,000 in compensatory damages, $5,000 for lost wages and another $25,000 in attorney fees.

Tingle's attorney, Nola Cross, will make as much money as Tingle on the settlement.

The city also agreed to provide Tingle with a letter of recommendation from Mayor John Dickert, and accept Tingle's resignation from her job as Becker's administrative assistant effective July 18, 2008. The agreement effectively reverses the city's decision to fire Tingle and leaves her with a clean employment record. (Read the city's previous 126-page document explaining why she was fired here.)

In exchange, Tingle agreed to drop any current and future lawsuits against the city and she will not seek further employment with the city. She also agreed not to disparage any current or former city employees or officials. The city also agreed to advise its aldermen and officials not to disparage Tingle.

Neither Tingle nor the city admitted to wrong doing in the settlement.

"The parties have entered into this Agreement to buy their peace and to avoid the cost of litigation," the settlement said.

You can read the full settlement here. Below is the letter of recommendation Dickert was required to write for Tingle:

To Whom It May Concern,
Re: Sandra Tingle

Dear Sir/Madame,
Sandra Tingle was employed as the Mayor’s Secretary for the City of Racine, Wisconsin from June 9, 2003 through July 18, 2008. Ms. Tingle resigned from her position to relocate to London, England, where her husband had accepted employment.
In her capacity as the Mayor’s Secretary, Ms. Tingle was responsible for all office support and administrative duties for the Mayor including scheduling appointments, answering phones and working with the public, preparing communications for the City Council, creating Council handbooks and other office literature, maintaining records and communications for City Council proceedings, and reconciling financial data for the Mayor’s travel expenses.
Ms. Tingle demonstrated effective communication and people skills and was able to handle difficult people with ease. In addition, she was organized, reliable, and skilled in a variety of computer programs. Ms. Tingle worked independently and was able to follow through to ensure that jobs were properly completed. She was flexible, willing to work on any project that was assigned to her, and often volunteered to work in areas outside the scope of her primary duties.
I recommend Ms. Tingle be given full consideration for any position for which she may apply.
John Dickert, Mayor
And here's the official statement the city released after reaching the settlement:
Sandra Tingle and the City of Racine have resolved her claim of a hostile work environment and retaliatory termination to their mutual satisfaction. While the City denies any liability or wrongful act towards Ms. Tingle, the City regrets any difficulties Ms. Tingle encountered during her employment with the City. 
The city's settlement wraps up a tumultuous period in the city's history. Tingle walks away with $25,000 and a clean employment record, Becker is in prison for three years and former City Administrator Ben Hughes has a new job in Michigan.

We'd be remiss if we didn't point out Dickert and Tingle had a close relationship before she left the country. Dickert was the Tingle's real estate agent, and was selling their Park Avenue home, until he ran for mayor and transferred the property to another agent. Tingle attended Dickert's victory party at Salute and it's no secret the Tingles were friends of Dickert's going back several years.

That said, people close to the negotiations strongly refuted the mayor was involved in the Tingle settlement. The decision was driven by the City Council, which felt Becker's guilty pleas and other circumstances with the case, made going to court a dicey - and potentially expensive - proposition. The city had already spent $70,000 on attorney's fees on the case, with the potential for tens of thousands of more dollars if Tingle and Cross pushed the case.

No city officials are now talking about the settlement, even off the record. They're likely scared off by the non-disparagement clause in the agreement, but they won't even say that.

With that, it appears the Becker-Tingle era in Racine city politics is over.

North Beach a finalist for U.S. Mayors' City Livability Award

Racine's North Beach restoration is a finalist for the U.S. Conference of Mayors' City Livability Award.

The competition is aimed at improving cities' quality of life; the North Beach project is one of 15 finalists out of 200 applications.

Usage of North Beach has increased from 126 per average weekday in 2005 to 641 in 2008; weekends see more than 5,000 at the beach per day.

The restoration of North Beach has also  attracted events like the EVP Pro-Beach Volleyball Tour and the Spirit of Racine Triathlon (which this summer becomes the Ironman 70.3 Racine Triathlon). The EVP volleyball players voted Racine the Host City of the Year four consecutive years. This year the World Series of Water Cross Jet Ski races will be held here in June.

Later this year,  North Beach will become handicapped-accessible directly to the water’s edge.

Winners of the award will be announced in May.

April 13, 2010

In spite of City Council's wishes, public library unlikely to open on Sundays

The city budget includes $33,000 to open the Racine Public Library on Sundays during the school year. But it's probably not going to happen.

Union contracts appear to be preventing Sunday hours at the library.

The library's Board of Trustees and its two unions have contracts that prevent the board from adding Sunday hours without renegotiating the contracts. That's unlikely, considering the board recently agreed to a contract with its part-time union workers. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the new contract Tuesday.

City Librarian Jessica MacPhail spoke in favor of the contract Monday before the Finance and Personnel Committee, which voted 4-1 in favor of ratifying the agreement. The contract includes, for the first time, paid time off for the library's part-time workers, who make a large portion of the library staff. Part-time city workers do not receive vacation or sick days.

The new contract brings an end to a year-long negotiation between the union and the library board, but puts the library at odds with the City Council's intention to open the library on Sundays. The council voted to increase the tax levy $33,000 to pay for the Sunday hours after city residents complained the library wasn't open the entire weekend during the school year.

MacPhail said working with the council and the part-time workers union on Sunday hours proved to be a difficult situation for the board.

"We were conducting two negotiations at once," she said.

But MacPhail added she believed once the council approved the $33,000 for Sunday hours back in November that the library would be able to implement as soon as Jan. 1.

"It has taken a lot longer than anyone anticipated," she said.

If the City Council approves the union contract for the library's part-time workers, it will be up to the library's Board of Trustees to reopen negotiations to include the Sunday hours. Both of the library's employee unions were opposed to adding Sunday hours during past negotiations, she said.

MacPhail said she didn't know if the board would consider renegotiating the contract.

If the board doesn't reopen the issue, it's unclear what would happen to the $33,000. In theory, the library could request to spend the money in other areas. However, because the money was set aside for a specific purpose, it's likely the council would reclaim the money and return it to the city's general fund.

Drives raise 22,721 lbs. of food, $15,495; next drive is May 8

The Racine County Food Bank reported the results of two recent hunger-fighting events, and details of one coming up in May.

The next food collection will be held on Saturday, May 8, by postal carriers. The National Association of Letter Carriers' “Stamp Out Hunger” food drive involves letter carriers delivering a bag to mailboxes during the first week of May. To donate, simply fill the bag and place it by your mailbox before your letter carrier arrives on May 8 and they will deliver it to the Food Bank.

Dan Taivalkoski, executive director of the Food Bank, announced at an after-party at George's Tavern that the 18th Annual Thoughts for Food in March raised $15,495. Along with the cash, 3,628 pounds of food was also collected. “In light of the current economic conditions, I’d say the event was a huge success” said Taivalkoski.

The Boy Scouts, “Scouting for Food” food drive on March 27 collected 19,093 pounds of food. While that total was down 28% from last year’s total, Taivalkoski said, “19,000 pounds of food is a significant donation and will certainly help to stretch our food budget.”

'Green' home brings modern design to historic district

1761 Main St. 

With a passing glance, Robert Osborne and Vera Scekic's new home just off of Wisconsin Avenue doesn't appear to fit the surrounding historic neighborhood on the city's near south side.

The colorful, cube-shaped house at 1761 Main St., known as the OS House, is enclosed in a glass design that's so transparent the house appears little more than a window looking out onto Lake Michigan. It's a clear contrast to the area's classically designed homes, many dating back over 100 years.

But it's the home's modern design that allows it to fit in with the neighborhood's diverse architecture, Osborne said.

"To us a historic district is something that continues to evolve over time," he said. "The district features over 150 years of housing designs. To us it's adding in the 21st Century modern design to the district."

Osborne said they've received some criticism, but lots of positive responses, as well.

"We've heard all kinds of feedback," he said. "A number of people who will just come up and tell us they like it. We try to remind people when the Frank Lloyd Wright houses were being built, they weren't so popular either."

"As people get used to it, they'll start to appreciate it," Osborne added.

There's a lot to appreciate. Beyond its modern design, the home is one of the most energy-efficient houses in the world. Osborne and Scekic hired Johnsen Schmaling Architects out of Milwaukee to design the house, which will be the second home in Wisconsin to receive the highest possible certification for green construction - call LEED Platinum - and one of about 800 homes in the country to receive the designation.

The house is heated with geothermal wells and uses solar-powered hot-water and electricity. It also includes rain barrels to collect stormwater runoff, and is built from a host of recycled and renewable materials.

A remarkable feature of the home are insets, overhangs and room designs that maximize shading on summer days, to keep the house cool, and maximize sunlight in the winter, to help warm the house. Schematics show the architects actually account for the angle of sunlight at different times of the day during different times of the year to naturally moderate the home's temperature.

"It's a very complicated house," Osborne said.

Construction on the home started in late summer of 2008, and it should be ready to move into within the next month or two, Osborne said.

The lengthy construction time was largely caused by the novel building materials and systems used in the house. Osborne and Scekic were committed to hiring local contractors to build the house. Beggi Construction, of Racine, was the lead contractor, and several local subcontractors were also hired.

"They're certainly capable," he said of the local companies, "it's just something they haven't done before. It's taking awhile to figure out how to do things."

But the construction process is part of Osborne and Scekic's goal of creating a sustainable, environmentally house that will inspire other Racine residents to pursue green building.

"We wanted people to see you can do these things in a city like Racine," Osborne said. "People may not want to build exactly that house, but there are things they can incorporate into construction."

Even more unusual than home's design may be its location. Often people build "green" homes out in the country where few people see the designs. Osborne said they chose an urban neighborhood so more people could see, and hopefully appreciate, the house.

The 1,950-square-foot home is a relatively small house, but the modern design creates more space than people expect, Osborne said.

"We wanted to build a sustainable house, not one that's overly big," Osborne said, adding the size "fits the scale of the neighborhood."

Osborne and Scekic now live in Evanston, Ill. Racine is Scekic's hometown and her mother still lives here, so they visit often. They bought the lot at 1761 Wisconsin Ave. from the previous owner who had used the space as a side yard to his house. When he decided to sell it gave Osborne and Scekic an opportunity to buy a lakefront property without having to tear down an existing house.

According to a city building permit, construction costs on the home were estimated at $476,000, which doesn't include design fees and other new home expenses. The lot was assessed at about $180,000 before construction began.

Osborne said they hope the one-of-a-kind home helps spur others in an environmentally responsible direction.

"We're believers in Downtown Racine," Osborne said. "We try to support the city by pointing it to other possibilites - green possibilites.

"We've seen lots of people driving by, looking at the house. The more people do that, the more they'll see the possibilities."

"We both think Racine has a lot of potential," Osborne said.

Update: The home won a 2010 award from the American Institute of Architects. It was given the "Merit Award" for excellence in particular aspects of project design.

Mt. Pleasant math: $10 million is really how much?

So, exactly how much will Mt. Pleasant's new Village Hall / Police Department cost?

The Journal Times leads today's paper with the big headline:

Which would lead one to believe that the Village Board finally came to its senses and decided to build a new Village Hall within the "confines" of the anonymous $10 million donation given to it for that purpose.

Au contraire, mon petite cherie!

Read beyond the headline, dear reader, into the forest of the fine print, where you'll learn again about the $4 million spent buying land for the new complex (this money will mostly come from the sale of the present village hall site); $2.9 million (to be borrowed) to equip the new police station and village hall; and another $166,000 - $263,000 or so needed to equip the "shell" of a police firing range included -- at a cost of about $250,000 -- within the complex (this will come from "donations," according to the police chief).

Old math thus puts the cost of the new Village "campus" at closer to $17 million than the $10 million figure cited -- or $13 million if you factor out the old village hall's sale proceeds; the same $13.5+ million figure the board contentiously OK'd six months ago. With haggling over the few hundred thousand for the firing range the only real argument. But, hey, it's only money.

Update: As the comments below remind me -- along with a call from Trustee Harry Manning, lone survivor in last week's election, no doubt for his efforts to rein in the spending on this Taj -- there's also the question of how much the village will spend relocating the Department of Public Works.  All in all, the latest number Manning quotes is $24 million. Hopefully, that's on the high side as the two newly elected trustees wield their mandate to cut the cost.

April 12, 2010

Ultra lounge and restaurant owners update city committee on plans to open

Back in January 2009 we wrote about Ivanhoe Pub & Eatery owner Doug Nicholson's plans to open an "ultra lounge" on Main Street in the former Racine News building.

It looks like it'll be a few more months before the "green" night club, tentatively named "Envi," opens. Nicholson appeared before the Public Safety and Licensing Committee Monday night to update committee members on the status of the project. The City Council granted Nicholson a liquor license for Envi about 15 months ago.

Nicholson told the committee it would be four or five months before he's able to open. He is, however, working on remodeling the interior and exterior of the building, which he owns.

The committee is interested in Nicholson's progress, and the progress of two other establishments with liquor licenses, because Racine is close to the state-set limit on Class B liquor licenses. It only has three available licenses, at the moment, and those license cost $10,000 a piece because they are "reserve" licenses that technically exceed the city's legal limit.

Nicholson's club, as well as the proposed "Grumpy's" on Lathrop Avenue and "Gerald's" on Washington Avenue, all hold liquor licenses but have yet to open. All three owners were called before the Public Safety and Licensing Committee Monday night under a new city ordinance that requires liquor license holders to update the committee on their progress if they don't open within nine months of receiving the license.

Grumpy's owner Karley Barcalow told the committee her plans were delayed because used kitchen equipment she planned on using didn't pass health department inspection. She told the committee she's now seeking additional loans to buy new equipment and to open, but is having a hard time convincing a bank to help her. That said, she has made progress on opening at 2011 Lathrop Ave. and hopes to move forward within four to five months. Barcalow received her license last summer and had planned to open Sept. 1.

Gerald Bester, owner of Gerald's on Washington Avenue, is hoping for a late-May opening, he told the committee. Bester has been appearing regularly before city committees in recent months to gain approvals for his restaurant, cafe and comedy club in the former "Bank" building in Uptown. He had always planned a spring 2010 opening. 

Alderman Aron Wisneski, chairman of the Public Safety and Licensing Committee, said city staff confirmed all three business owners are making progress on their establishments. Under city ordinance, each will have to provide a written update to the committee in three months, if they don't open.

City may use its savings to pay this year's bills, finance director cautions

The city is tapping its savings accounts to pay its bills.

That's the analogy Finance Director Dave Brown used Monday night to describe the city's financial situation. He told the City Council's Finance Committee that it looks like the city will spend the $2.2 million it took out of its reserve fund to balance its 2010 budget.

While the city uses its reserves - essentially a savings account - every year to balance its budget, it typically pays itself back with money that was budgeted, but not spent during the year.

That may not happen in 2010, Brown said. He told the Finance Committee it looks like the city will spend all of the $2.2 million it took out of reserves this year.

Brown's message was a caution to committee members about spending money left unspent in the 2010 budget. Not only could the city use that money to replenish its fund balance, he said, it's likely the city will need its savings to make it through the coming years, as well.

Brown said tapping the fund balance hurts the city in a number of ways. It reduce the amount of money available for cash flow, cuts down on how much money the city can earn interest on through investments, and could increase the cost of borrowing money through a lower bond rating.

Like a personal budget, Brown said there are two solutions to dwindling savings: make more money or spend less.

This is our 3,000th story!

Thanks everybody!

HALO seeking donated dressers and storage containers

Here's a note from Brenda Thomas, development assistant at HALO, on donations needed at Racine's homeless shelter:
Hello Everyone!! Happy Spring. I am getting ready to start our May Newsletter and the Community Newsletter for the Journal Times. I have gotten a couple of requests that I feel should get out ASAP to those who are amongst our most avid supporters. These items are needed because we are in constant movement here at HALO, both in our sleeping rooms and in our offices where the necessary paper trail continues to grow!!
We have been blessed to have had several groups in here lately "Adopting" rooms and giving them a makeover. The furniture & accessories donated during the Adoption are extremely appreciated. One of the ongoing challenges here is that we always need DRESSERS and STORAGE CONTAINERS, especially those that slip under the beds. The dressers must be sturdy and able to take the movement (from room to room when necessary) and heavy use. Our rooms aren't always able to accommodate the longer, horizontal dressers so the vertical/taller dressers work best. Also, sturdy racks (and hangers) to hang clothing on are high on the NEED list. Even a 'tree' for coats can help to alleviate the demand for dresser space.
For the office, we are looking for four-drawer METAL FILE CABINETS, with locks preferably but not absolutely necessary. Two-drawer cabinets could always be used too ... either here at HALO or out at our apartments i.e. in THP or PHP.
If you are ever wondering what HALO could use as far as donations, please visit our Website at www.haloinc.org. I try to keep that current. I do know that we will always need fresh fruit and vegetables … just FYI.
Thanks for ALL you do ………. we can't tell you enough how important you are to HALO!! Feel free to send this to your list serve.
Brenda Thomas, Development Assistant

Transit advocates are mobilizing
against County Board's non-binding referendum

An interesting sidelight to the one-man, one-vote bedrock of Democracy is surfacing this week. The County Board is on the cusp of calling for a countywide vote on regional transit ... while proponents of  transit itself are mobilizing against it.

What it all boils down to is this: The County Board, and County Executive Bill McReynolds -- who are 100% in favor of commuter rail as long as it's paid for by a tax on cars rented in Milwaukee and not by a countywide sales tax (No, no, no, the ghost of George Petak, no!!) -- want to put the matter to a referendum. A referendum many are  sure would lose, as it calls for approval of a new tax.

The County Board doesn't want a binding referendum, mind you; just an advisory one. The board still would be able to do whatever it pleases... (So, you ask, why bother with the vote at all? That's the question opponents are asking.)

The resolution, up for second reading and possible final approval at the County Board's meeting Tuesday night would authorize:
"The Placement On The November 2010 Ballot Of An Advisory Referendum Question With Regard To A Possible Additional Tax For Mass Transit Purposes."

Or so the board's agenda reads. Actually, the resolution says much more than that -- we have it all below -- but the ultimate result would be a ballot question asking Racine County voters:
"Should any new tax to support transit or rail services, such as a sales tax or local vehicle registration fee, be permitted in any part of Racine County?"

Regional transit and KRM commuter rail supporters are up in arms. They plan to march on the County Board (The image of villagers brandishing fiery torches inexplicably comes to mind.) to speak out at the board meeting Tuesday.

Mind you, a lot of important Racine and Milwaukee area residents are all in favor of commuter rail. A few weeks ago, Roger Caron, president of RAMAC, was running a radio commercial urging listeners to call Sen. John Lehman and Rep. Cory Mason for their support. (They're both Democrats; Republican Rep. Robin Vos presumably is a lost cause on this issue.) And 32 top business leaders -- from Aurora Health Care, Wheaton Franciscan, Froedtert, Marshall & Ilsley, Johnson Financial, Kranz, SC Johnson, Johnson Controls, Wispark... you get the picture -- wrote to the Legislature earlier this year, "on behalf of the  100,000 employees we represent," urging support of a "multi-modal regional transit authority including Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee Counties" with "a dedicated funding mechanism."

And many are not. McReynolds himself, in his "State of the County" address last May, said, "Two years ago, this County Board expressed support for commuter rail." (Alas, for regional transit supporters, he didn't stop there.)  "...provided it would be funded by a car rental fee. Earlier this year, while the County Board expressed support for regional transit, it called for an elected governing body, (...or there...) vigorously opposed a sales tax, and insisted that individual communities be able to decide whether to be taxed for transit.

TransitNOW is planning to storm the battlements -- well, they hope to show up en masse at the Couty Board meeting at Ives Grove at 6:30 p.m. this Tuesday -- opposing any such referendum. So is Community for Change.

Kerry Thomas, executive director of TransitNow, calls the proposed referendum question : "clearly biased, inaccurately worded, and misleading." She notes that the proposed RTA legislation mandates a binding referendum for every municipality that wants to implement a sales tax for transit. "This was a request by the County Board, County Executive McReynolds, and Rep. Robin Vos," she says. "Should the board vote for the referendum Tuesday, their vote will take place "before the RTA legislation even has a chance to pass."

Thomas is urging members to speak during the public comment period at the beginning the board meeting, to urge the board "to let municipalities decide for themselves if and when they want to invest in transit, as the RTA legislation calls for. If there must be a referendum, urge them to re-write the referendum question to accurately describe the situation so that the results will be useful.... Let’s make sure that any referendum that is placed is useful and is based on an accurate description of the issue so that it reflects the true wishes of the people, and is not misleading or a waste of time and money."

Kelly Gallaher of Community for Change says much the same. "A non-binding referendum is a waste of the people's time... Non-binding resolutions are almost always an indication of governmental weakness and a failure in leadership. To 'poll' constituents about issues without the benefit of binding action using a flawed and hypothetical question is just stupid. I support the use of ballot resolutions that are binding and reflect real legislation; anything short of that is political theater."

Others see the potential referendum as something else entirely, as a "wedge issue," a hot-button on the ballot to energize, say, the TEA Party movement -- which has been vocal in its opposition to KRM.  (They brought in Randall O'Toole from the CATO Institute a few weeks ago;  he questioned most of transit supporters' economic forecasts.) Once at the polls, this theory goes, these people will vote "right," thus influencing the outcome of other election issues and candidates.

The complete County Board resolution states:
To the Honorable Members of the Racine County Board of Supervisors:

      WHEREAS, mass transit in Southeastern Wisconsin has been the subject of various legislative proposals since 2005, some already enacted and others still pending; and

      WHEREAS, some of these proposals would permit imposition, within Racine County, of new taxes, such as a sales tax or a local vehicle registration fee, to provide the local share of funds for mass transit, which could include both bus and KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail transit; and

      WHEREAS, in Resolution 2006-160, the Racine County Board of Supervisors expressed its support for a vehicle rental fee as the sole funding mechanism for commuter rail; and

      WHEREAS, in Resolution 2008-134S, the Racine County Board of Supervisors expressed its opposition to a sales tax as a funding mechanism for commuter rail; and

      WHEREAS, given the conflicting provisions of legislative proposals for funding mass transit in Southeastern Wisconsin, and the expectation that more proposals will be introduced, members of the public have expressed a desire that their views on this matter be heard; and

      WHEREAS, the Racine County Board of Supervisors desires to hear the views of the public on this important matter; and

      WHEREAS, subsection 59.52 (25) of the Wisconsin Statutes permits the County Board of Supervisors to conduct a countywide referendum for advisory purposes; and

      WHEREAS, the following advisory referendum question provides a way for the public to express its views on how the local share of mass transit in Racine County should be funded:

    Should any new tax to support transit or rail services, such as a sales tax or local vehicle registration fee, be permitted in any part of Racine County?

      NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Racine County Board of Supervisors will place on the November 2010 ballot the following as an advisory referendum question:

    Should any new tax to support transit or rail services, such as a sales tax or local vehicle registration fee, be permitted in any part of Racine County?

      BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this resolution be sent to the Governor, to Racine County’s state legislative delegation, and to the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SERTA).