RACINE COUNTY — Last year was the biggest year for local business news that I have ever seen. With this column I finish my list of my top 10, with my nos. 6-10.
Part one of my list ran last Sunday, Dec. 31, when I named 2017’s biggest stories from Foxconn Technology Group at No. 1 (what else?) to Racine’s new White Box Program at No. 5. So, let’s resume with …
No. 6 — Goodbye to Nelson’s
Many in the community were crestfallen last January when Nelson’s Variety Stores owner Jeff Nelson announced he would close his two stores — one at 3223 Washington Ave. in West Racine and another at 4636 Douglas Ave. in Caledonia — as soon as all merchandise was sold off. The end came at 5 p.m. April 1.
The founders opened their first store the year before America entered World War II. That made 2017 the 77th, and last, year of Nelson’s selling its extensive collection of everyday and hard-to-find merchandise. Nelson estimated his stores carried 30,000 to 40,000 different items he acquired from 40 to 50 or more distributors. His often-used slogan was, “We sell anything from aspirin to zippers.”
The West Racine store in particular was cherished by many people for its old-time ambience with shopping baskets the Nelsons bought in about the 1940s and creaky, tongue-and-groove wooden floors.
But that iconic space should have some type of future; Johnson’s Home Furnishings co-owner Jim Spangenberg bought the building and used a White Box Program grant to help refurbish the entire interior. He’ll either place a tenant inside or expand his adjacent store, at 3219 Washington Ave., into the old Nelson’s.(tncms-asset)7a222662-ebf6-11e7-9abf-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
No. 7 — Business or parkland?
In January, when Fischer USA asked to buy three-quarters of an acre of the adjacent Pierce Woods Park for a 12,000-square-foot expansion, the request set off a passionate attempt by some people to preserve the city park’s integrity.
On the other side of the debate and fairly lengthy deliberation process were those who wanted to support a long-time local employer that planned to make a $3 million capital investment and create 20 additional manufacturing and engineering support jobs. Ryan Brath, president and chief operating officer for Fischer, 3715 Blue River Ave., said the company had considered several options including relocation, and expanding in place best fit its needs. Fischer also promised to replace all the trees that would have to be sacrificed.
After about a month of debate at various city meetings, the climactic City Council meeting drew more than 100 people and spawned 90 minutes of public comment. An expansion opponent submitted a petition with 620 signatures of people who didn’t want the company expansion. But the City Council voted unanimously to allow the parkland purchase and expansion.
No. 8 — Highway 11 tussle ends
Last summer brought the end of a long-simmering dispute between Racine County and the Village of Sturtevant over four vacant properties along Highway 11, setting up the possibility of their development along the village’s “Main Street.”
The properties, which the village had declared blighted, lie along the north side of Durand Avenue and across Highway 11 from Blain’s Farm & Fleet, 8401 Durand Ave. Racine County took the four parcels, which had become part of the failed Cobble Court condominium development, in November 2015 in a mass tax foreclosure.
But Sturtevant had struggled mightily, since the previous year, to acquire those 13 acres from the county — including having a $275,000 purchase offer rejected. Nor did county officials seem to want to donate the land to the village.
When the county ultimately reversed that position and donated the properties to Sturtevant, it opened the door to a Highway 11 corridor upgrade. All four parcels are now for sale — for the right project, right price.
No. 9 — Hot corner
It took tons of persistence and about $8 million, but last year Willkomm brothers Mike and Jim built their multipart development at the southeastern corner of Highway 31 and Spring Street in Mount Pleasant. So far it consists of a Mobil gas station and convenience store, Rocket Wash car wash, independent restaurant called The Dish and a Dunkin’ Donuts.
The Willkomms also plan to add another building for commercial tenants on the property in the future.
Not insignificantly, because the brothers donated part of their acquired corner to the state, the Department of Transportation used the gift to partially reconstruct and improve the busy intersection — although the construction project was one of this year’s biggest headaches for drivers.
No. 10 — Racine Automotive Group
This is the third story in my top 10 for 2017 involving unscrupulous behavior by a business, and/or business decisions causing people to suffer.
One sign of potential trouble for the business at 6940 Washington Ave., Mount Pleasant, appeared last spring when the Wisconsin Department of Revenue filed tax warrants totaling about $100,000 against Racine Automotive.
After the business closed in August, we discovered and reported about a disturbing pattern that involved some Racine Automotive customers who traded in vehicles that hadn’t yet been paid off. They described delays of weeks or months between when they traded in their vehicles and the dealership paying off the lien holders.
In the meantime, those buyers remained responsible for the loans and payments on vehicles they no longer owned — and which Racine Automotive had already sold, in some cases. Those customers complained of never being able to reach Racine Automotive Managing Partner Chuck Harvey about their problems.
Harvey blamed the delays on the process dealers must follow and on slow lender processing of payoff checks. But that seemed a dubious explanation considering that the Wisconsin Automobile and Truck Dealers Association did not agree. Sue Miller, the association’s vice president for services, said, “I have never had a dealer tell me there’s a flaw in the process.”