RACINE — Five years ago, Pritchard Park was a prime example of what happens when you ignore the land. Overrun with an invasive species, prone to flooding, ugly, damaging to Racine’s water supplies. Negatives all around.
During a volunteer day about five years ago, attempting to make a dent in removing the invasive and damaging buckthorn, a woman said aloud: “This is never going to happen.” That pessimism steeled Dave Giordano’s resolve.
Looking back, that volunteer couldn’t have been more wrong.
The rooting-out process is simple but challenging. Giordano described it as “hack and squirt” — cut down the invader, spray a bit of herbicide at the base. Then you repeat that, on plant after plant, year after year.
There’s still buckthorn in the park, but it’s now a tiny minority of the plant population as opposed to the predominant resident. Five years ago, as much as 90% of plant life in Pritchard Park’s 15 acres was buckthorn and dead ash trees.
“You’d be hard pressed to find a bee in here,” Giordano said. Much less an endangered bee, such as the rusty patched bumblebee discovered for the first time in years at the park along Highway 11 (Durand Avenue) last month, one month after it re-emerged at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. “When you eradicate buckthorn and bring back the natives, all the natives come back and they find their food sources.”
The restoration work is paying off. Not only have native species returned in force, but they’re making a positive impact.
Deeper, more diverse root systems improve water quality for the surrounding area while also preventing erosion. In short: Living things help keep unliving human infrastructure, like roads and buildings, intact. It’s plants and concrete working in tandem, not opposition.
“This kind of restoration in an urban area … it doesn’t happen enough,” said Giordano.
Giordano has a master’s degree in information technology. He previously filled his days managing digital databases, leading marketing efforts and working in construction management. But then he started volunteering with Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network, an organization dedicated to protecting watersheds in the basin surrounding the Root and Pike rivers. Since 2015, he’s been the nonprofit’s executive director.
“We’ve gotta leave it better than when we got here,” he said of how he came to lead an environmental organization, thinking about his five kids and the legacy, and planet, Generation X will leave behind.
At about 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 4, a rusty patched bumblebee was found in Pritchard Park by Maddie Ball, who was working alongside recent University of Wisconsin-Parkside graduate Simone Sorensen. It’s one of the biggest signs of success in wildlife restoration and preservation locally in years.
It’s not merely cool that an endangered bee was found. It’s also evidence that the past five years’ work has paid off.
“This is what success looks like,” Giordano said.
As Giordano walked through the grass while being interviewed earlier this month, grasshoppers scattered alongside his footsteps. The six-legged critters look like rats when the light turns on in the kitchen. But instead of carrying disease, grasshoppers are small-scale pollinators and attract seed-spreading birds to Pritchard Park, for whom the grasshoppers are dinner.
There weren’t many grasshoppers here five years ago. They don’t care for buckthorn.
One bird you won’t see much of anymore in Pritchard is the goose — at least, they’re now avoiding the forested area opposite the pond at the corner of Ohio and 21st streets, the northeast corner of the park, where Root-Pike WIN is planning its next project. Geese don’t care for grasshopper dinners and prefer hanging out around the buckthorn that’s becoming increasingly tough to find.
That’s a good thing. Goose excrement is riddled with phosphorous and E. Coli, respectively a mineral and a bacteria; both can ruin water supplies. Geese aren’t fans of tall grasses — tall grasses that are naturally supposed to grow at Pritchard Park, and better for the local environment.
“We’re going to process these pollutants naturally,” Giordano said. Of the park’s current state: “It’s got all these native species doing mitigation work on this stormwater, and that’s making an impact downstream.”
Without these kind of systems, groundwater, lakes and rivers can lead to health hazards. “Sediment is one of the big polluters to the Root River; so is phosphorous and nitrogen. (Native) root systems break down those pollutants,” Giordano said.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “As polluted water makes its way to the oceans, water quality can be affected, which often results in the closing of local beaches due to unhealthy water conditions. Stormwater carries disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Swimming in polluted waters can make you sick.”
Racine’s lakefront beaches have been closed to swimmers about a dozen times this summer due to high e. coli counts. Smarter, more effective green spaces in urban areas could help reduce beach closures.
These intentional changes “Put things back into equilibrium. Turf doesn’t do that,” Giordano said.
The discovery of a rusty patched bumblebee was exhilarating news for staff of the Root-Pike Watershed Initiative, definitive proof that their restoration efforts have borne results.
Bees need warm, dense places to survive winters — mouse holes are an option in Pritchard Park, as is dense brush. (Bumblebees don’t have hives as honeybees do.)
To survive until spring, should some bees winter in the forest at Pritchard Park, they’ll need food sources. Buckthorn is useless to bumblebees. But now at Pritchard Park they have a buffet: Liatris, aka blazing star, black-eyed susan and ox-eyed daisy wildflowers, Canada wild rye, Virginia mountain mint, not to mention goldenrod.
There’s also milkweed, a plant that monarch butterflies cannot live without. It’s the only plant they lay their eggs on, and the only thing caterpillars eat when born.
The Michigan Lily, also known as the Turk’s Cap Lily, a flower with fiery petals and one of bumblebees’ favorite meals, reappeared in Pritchard Park without being planted. “They came back on their own,” Giordano said, noting that their seeds could “survive” on the ground for more than a decade before beginning to grow once the conditions are right.
Giordano called the rusty patched an “indicator species,” meaning its status shows how well other related species are doing. If the rusty patched is there, that means the whole area is probably in good shape.
“‘If you build it, they will come’ works pretty well here,” Giordano said, quoting from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” “We’re just scratching the surface of restoring natural land types in Wisconsin.”
Nan Calvert, program director for Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network’s “Respect Our Waters” public outreach and education program, said the agricultural damage from losing pollinators would be in the billions of dollars.
This is what happens when you take care of the land and address the mistakes of the past. “They left it alone. The invasive species found their way in,” Giordano said of those who failed to protect Racine’s parks in recent decades.
That harm is being undone.
“You’ve got a system that’s more beautiful. It’s feeding our endangered pollinators … and you’ve created an incredible sense of place here,” he said, noting the family playing on the swings surrounded by trees and greenery, and the bridge built by Eagle Scout Tommy Rouse last summer. “We’ve got people connecting with the landscape again.”
RACINE — There is once again movement on the long-discussed redevelopment of property at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Gaslight Drive — albeit a bit scaled back from the plan proposed two years ago.
The property at 233 Lake Ave. was once a gas manufacturing plant, but could become the home of 200 market-rate housing units with lake and/or harbor views.
The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to enter into a development agreement with Hovde Properties of Madison, which plans a $28 million redevelopment for the site.
The development agreement will obligate the city to provide certain incentives, which the developer will then leverage to obtain outside funding for the project.
The city has agreed to provide a $2.6 million developer grant in addition to a developer-funded, 17-year incentive paid through TID #21.
TID #21 was created in 2018 in anticipation of redevelopment of the site.
A TID earns money in the following way: The city sets a base value when the TID is created. As the property value increases due to the development, the difference between the base value and increased value will be set aside for the developer.
The developer may then pledge the TID funds as security for additional financing.
The development agreement includes the caveat that the “Racine Works” ordinance will be in place, which will require construction work hours to include 20% for qualified and eligible low-income city residents.
Additionally, the developer will be required to incorporate LEED energy efficiency improvements and obtain at least a Silver certification for the final structure.
Hovde Properties has had its eye on the site for some time.
On May 3, 2019, Hovde entered into an offer-to-purchase agreement with the city’s development authority for the purposes of acquiring a 98-year lease of the site.
At that time, Hovde’s proposed $40 million development of the site included the construction of two mid-rise, market-rate residential apartment buildings totaling at least 180 units, and a limited-service hotel encompassing approximately 100 guest rooms and a small restaurant with a bar.
Two years and one pandemic later, the newest proposal does not include a hotel, but the multifamily units have expanded.
The latest proposal intends 200 market-rate rental housing with community space and a fitness center for residents, among the amenities.
The 3.5-acre city-owned tract was formerly owned by We Energies and was acquired in 2014 from Wispark LLC, which is the development arm of We Energies.
Before the city acquired the property, We Energies demolished existing structures and undertook environmental remediation on the site.
An Agenda Briefing Memorandum outlined the extensive environmental issues connected with the property.
Because there had been a gas manufacturing plant on the site, there were three gas tanks, four coal tanks, and coke bins on the property.
The ABM indicated there have been two phases of environmental remediation at the site and contamination mitigation is ongoing.
Despite the mitigation, the first floor above ground level can only be utilized for non-residential space.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources may mandate additional conditions in the future, which could likely lead to increased costs to the developer, according to the ABM.
UNION GROVE — A corrections nurse accused of having sexual relations with an inmate was found not guilty of all charges on Thursday after a three-day jury trial in Racine County Circuit Court.
Jeremy J. Deppisch, 51, was charged in July 2018 with three counts of second-degree sexual assault by corrections staff.
The Racine County Sheriff’s Office responded to the Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center in Dover to look into allegations of a nurse having a sexual relationship with an inmate seven months before.
According to the criminal complaint:
The investigator discovered the allegations went back to January 2018.
The allegations against Deppisch were that he would call the inmate to the Health Services unit or meet her during meal times.
There was also an allegation that he wrote a false prescription for her, but he was not charged with that at trial.
The Ellsworth Correction Center is a minimum-security facility for the supervision of adult female offenders.