2016: The Year in Review, Part 1
By Joe Bachman
Out with the old, in with the new.
A consistent theme for Wisconsin Rapids this year, as the city looks forward to continue work on downtown redevelopment, an outdoor aquatics facility, and a new recycling service for residents. 2016 said ‘goodbye’ to landmark taverns, police chiefs and superintendents — and ‘hello’ to a new and hopeful outlook to the future of Wisconsin Rapids.
With that, here is part one of the 2016 year in review:
New Narcotics Position Created to Combat Heroin
A new narcotics position was created to help fight the stated heroin epidemic in January. The position was created through the Wisconsin Rapids Police Department in efforts to address the drug issue on more levels than just criminal. Community involvement and prevention is key in the position, created to supplement and support all pillars of tackling Wis. Rapids’ drug problems.
“We’ve all seen a significant increase in activity around the use of drugs, narcotics, meth, heroin, and so our responsibility around that activity is to address from not just a law enforcement standpoint, but a community standpoint,” said Chief of Police Kurt Heuer. “What we found was that we weren’t getting to everything we needed to get to from a time standpoint from just one narcotics detective.”
Verso Corp Paper Mill Files Bankruptcy
Verso Corp., the owner of paper mills in Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Jan. 26 to address the company’s $2.4 billion dollar debt.
The decision was made by the board of directors of Verso in efforts to “strengthen the company’s balance sheet”, and to position the company for “long-term success”. Verso took in a debtor-in-possession package that will total up to $600 million, which will help the company in operational flexibility.
“Verso intends to operate our business as usual with an unwavering focus on running our facilities safely and efficiently, delivering the high quality products and services our customers have come to expect from us,” said a press release on the manner — “maintaining valued relationships with our suppliers, protecting the environment, and being a good neighbor in the communities where we operate.”
First Steps in Triangle Redevelopment Take Shape
The latest in downtown redevelopment began in late February with the demolition of two dilapidated buildings on what is known as the ‘triangle area’ across from the Wood Co. Courthouse and adjacent to the Wisconsin River.
The multi-million dollar project will construct new commercial and residential buildings. Part of the demolition included the destruction of long time tavern ‘Good Time Charlie’s’. During 2015, the city reached purchase agreements with owners of three properties after determining that the conditions of these buildings made them uninhabitable and at the end of their useful service life.
“We will continue to work with other property owners in a site that can be clean and ready for redevelopment to bring a multi-story structure that could bring housing, business and retail space,” said Mayor Zach Vruwink. “There is a greater vision of capitalizing on a group of fronts, as well as the courthouse and other businesses in the area.”
WRPD Welcomes a New K-9 to the Force
The Wisconsin Rapids Police Department became one breed stronger in February.
New K-9 addition, Lex, was sworn into duty on Feb. 22, while also commemorating the retirement of Diego, who served on the force for seven years.
“I’ve deployed Diego 334 times, and of that 219 were drug related deployments, and 119 were patrol — which are search warrants, building clearing, tracking; things like that,” said officer Dean Fleisner, who was partnered with Diego. “One thing I’m really proud of is the fact that I kind of view him as my firearm. I know I have a firearm, but if I don’t have to use it to save a life, then that’s a good career. We’ve been very successful in the drug work, very successful in tracking and finding people, and I’m hoping to carry that on with Lex.”
2016 ‘Arti Gras’ Becomes Biggest in Event History
This year’s ARTi Gras, a celebration of the arts in and around the Wisconsin Rapids community, was set to be the biggest and longest event in its short history.
The event opened on Mar. 10 and ran until Mar. 19. All forms of entertainment and arts from operas, plays, magic shows, art exhibits, poetry, comedy shows, and live music spanned 10 days in multiple locations. The event celebrated its third year, but it has never seen the amount of events, artists and exposure as it did in 2016, due partly from a Wisconsin grant.
“ARTi Gras is a festival on the rise that celebrates the arts and shines a light on cultural organizations in Central Wisconsin,” said Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett from a Dec. 2015 press release. “We are proud to support events like ARTi Gras that showcase the state as an arts destination and create a positive economic impact in the community.”
Small Protests Gathered Around Drug Problems
A total of nine Wisconsin Rapids residents formed a protest at city hall on Mar. 14, demanding more warrants and more arrests from local police.
“I’ve talked to some officers, and they say we’ve made a lot of progress — well then let people know so they can get out of here, and let it be known,” said former mayoral candidate Chris Marceau. “You take one dealer down, and another one will come back, well let’s take twenty down at once and see how many come back. The point is to close the open cases — I’m here to stand up for the people.”
Chief of Police Kurt Heuer and Chief Deputy Randy Jahns took time to speak to some of those involved in the protest, which ended in the early afternoon that day.
“Quite honestly, I think we’re talking the same language, but they do things just a bit different,” said Heuer. “We had a good conversation, and I think from both sides a better understanding of where we were coming from — at the end of the day we’re all talking about the same thing, and that’s trying to get the community back to a very healthy place where we can address this heroin, meth, and substance abuse issue together.”
Vruwink Wins Third Term as Wisconsin Rapids Mayor
Incumbent Mayor Zach Vruwink defeated challenger Robert Nash to win his third straight term as Wisconsin Rapids Mayor on April 5.
“I’m very pleased that the voters have decided to continue the path to realize the full potential of Wisconsin Rapids,” said Vruwink. “I’ve made that my campaign commitment and I intend to continue that in the next two years.”
Vruwink won 56 percent of the vote, winning out 3,293 to 2,518.
“I’m re-energized. I believe that we’ve set in motion a number of great initiatives,” said Vruwink. “Number one, to focus on restoring a stronger economy in the community and realizing that it’s a long term strategy to full be successful — but we certainly have made progress in the time that I’ve been in office and I looking forward to making more in the next two years.”
Murder-Suicide Claims Three Lives
In a tragic event, police began an investigation into an apparent double-homicide, suicide on the morning of April 27.
According to reports, a man sent his brother what was described as a “disturbing” email saying goodbye to his family. After police arrived on the scene they would find the bodies of 36-year-old Justin Bohn, daughter, 5-year-old Paige Bohn, and son, 3-year-old Devon Bohn. According to police, it’s apparent that Justin shot and killed his children, before taking his own life. Mother, Amanda Bohn, was not home at the time of the incident.
“We extend out deepest sympathies to the families and friends of these victims, as they and we as a community mourn their losses.” said Lieutenant Brian Krzykowski.
City Gets a Recycling Renovation
City officials moved forward with the renovations of local recycling services, including the purchase of a new truck, and the order of 6,500 new recycling carts.
Starting in January of 2017, the city’s recycling will change to a single-stream service, which would mean residents will no longer need to separate their recyclables. Residents will also get to choose between a 95 gallon and a 45 gallon bin for their recyclables.
“A single stream automated would be significantly safer and will result in a significant increase in the collection of recyclable materials,” said Public Works Director Terry, “At the end of the day we’ll end up saving the city quite a bit of money.”
This fall, the city started to deliver the new recycling bins to residents, who had a choice between 48 and 96 gallon carts.
“This service should be more convenient for property owners, safer for collection operators, prevent accidental littering from recyclable materials blowing out of bins and out of the recycling truck, and result in more materials being recycled.” said Terry.
Council Denies New City Hall Furniture
A proposal to replace the decades old lobby and office furniture in city hall was voted down on May 17.
The common council voted against the request by a 5-3 vote, following public debate through social media, which saw both support and disapproval. The Finance & Property committee initially approved a $13,000 overhaul to the first and second floor lobbies of city hall, including approximately $6,600 in upgrades to Mayor Zach Vruwink’s third floor lobby.
According to some city officials, upgrades to office furniture in government buildings is common, and various departments in city hall, including the polic department, has already received upgrades from 2011-2015.
“Everything has a life cycle — the city has set up these replacement accounts to appropriately replace furniture when the time came to do so,” said Mayor Zach Vruwink. “I do find it appropriate, and it’s not out of the ordinary for any governmental entity; whether it’s schools or local government to replace furniture or any other capital items.”
“I’ve had a few calls on this,” said alderperson Tom Rayome. “I think we could get furniture at a cheaper price that would do the job.”
City documents show that the cost of the furniture would have been taken from replacement funds for this specific purpose, which were established years ago. The desire to upgrade the furniture stemmed from a perceived lack of modern ergonomic design and functionality.
Governor Walker Visits Wis. Rapids
“We’re proud of you.”
Words from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was on hand to congratulate and address twelve interns on their graduation from Project SEARCH on June 1 at the Wisconsin Rapids Community Theatre Auditorium. The program, established in 1996, facilitates employment training for young adults with disabilities.
In 2014, Opportunity Development Centers (ODC) became one of only seven agencies who were awarded a new Project SEARCH program. In this program, students in with disabilities spent their last year of high school focused on a transition into the workplace.
“We know that one of the best things to come out of a program like this is you get to share the dignity that comes from work,” said Walker. “The confidence that you’ve got, the skills that you’ve evolved are things that you can apply going forward”
Cranberry Blossomfest Better Than Ever
Wisconsin Rapids is blossoming; literally — and this year’s Blossomfest turned out to be its biggest celebration, yet.
The Cranberry Blossom Festival kicked off on June 16-19 this summer, and from its’ humble roots nine years ago, the festival has grown from a celebration of the cranberry industry to a celebration of a blossoming community. The festival not only spans four days, but encompasses 13 different locations and venues.
“This weekend is supposed to serve as inspiration for people to get out and explore the community and all that it has to offer,” said Laura Nelson, Executive Director for the Wisconsin Rapids Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “– to be a tourist in your own town and to visit different attractions, engage in different activities and meet new people.”
The festival hosted 28 events in total that weekend, spanning four days in the Wisconsin Rapids area. While many activities were family friendly, there are attractions for all ages, including the South Wood County YMCA 5K Bridge Run/Walk, “Cinema Under the Stars”, and the introduction of Music Fest, which featured seven local bands at Robinson Park in an all-day concert.
“It’s a weekend that people are staring to recognize,” said Morgan Vanderhei, Marketing Associate for the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “There’s all these fun things going on and it gives them a sense to focus on all of these positive things that we have to offer, and something that they look forward to.”
New Kwik Trip Finally Approved by City
After weeks of debate and delay, a new Kwik Trip was finally approved by the city under a conditional use agreement.
Development of a new Kwik Trip on the corner of Lincoln St. and E. Riverview Expressway was all but cemented on June 21. Council members voted almost unanimously for the conditional use of the property by Kwik Trip to open what will be a fourth location in Wisconsin Rapids. However, the main concern from alderpersons was that of traffic safety.
“Safety, safety, safety,” said Rayome. “I can’t believe the p.d. is in favor of this one.”
A traffic analysis of the area is just one of 18 conditions set in place for Kwik Trip to build on the property. These conditions include adjusting the position of a car wash to face the expressway to reduce noise, limitations of hours of use, restrictions on outdoor music and the brightness of animated signs, and fencing along 6th St. and Dewey St. for privacy concerns by neighbors.
“There were 18 conditions that were posed on the project, which addressed all of the concerns related to the neighborhood, as well as concerns of public safety,” said Mayor Zach Vruwink. “They [Kwik Trip] have to comply with the conditions, meet development agreements and the traffic impact analysis that’s been conducted.”
Stay tuned for Part 2: July-December