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SPENCER FLATEN, The Herald 

McDonell seniors Abby Opsal (left), Grace Mrozinski (middle) and Megan Baier (right) led the way for the Macks this fall with standout seasons to cap their decorated careers. Their efforts have earned them tri-Player of the Year honors in Chippewa County.


Local
featured top story
Three finalists selected for Chippewa County Administrator

The county administrator in Sawyer County, an administrative coordinator from Merrill and the administrator of a mental health and substance abuse program in Chippewa Falls are the finalists for the Chippewa County administrator’s job.

The finalists include: Jill Chaffee of Chippewa Falls; Thomas R. Hoff of Hayward; and Randy Scholz of Merrill.

Current administrator Frank Pascarella will be leaving as county administrator in December 2017. Pascarella chose not to renew his contract with the county.

The county’s Executive Committee narrowed the field of applicants at meetings Nov. 13, 14 and 16.

Toni M. Hohlfelder, director of the Chippewa County Human Resources department, said the finalists will be interviewed Thursday, Dec. 14, and Friday, Dec. 15. “The process will include panel interviews with department heads and elected officials, an evening ‘meet and greet’ with county board supervisors and will conclude with an interview with the (county’s) Executive Committee,” she said.

The “meet and greet” event will be at Horizon’s Lounge and Banquet Center in Tilden.

Jill Chaffee

Chaffee has worked as mental health and substance abuse for the Western Region Recovery and Wellness Consortium since January 2013.

She leads the nine-county Comprehensive Community Services program, that brings services to more than 300 people. Her resume said she leads a three-county consortium for mental health and substance abuse services.

She said she’s been working with the Chippewa County Department of Human Services’ fiscal staff to come up with a fiscal process that meets the requirements of Medicaid, administrative code and the Office of the Inspector General.

“The WRRWC design of our rate setting structure was featured during a state-wide Division of Care and Treatment Services training session. I presented the structure at the request of the state of Wisconsin-Division of Care and Treatment Services. Many counties have adopted our rate setting process,” she wrote on her resume.

She said while being an advocate for her agency, she continues having a positive working relationship with other counties, state employees and others in her field.

She served as regional director and executive director of the Northwest Counseling and Guidance Clinic in Frederic from December 1999-January 2013. She was a mental health therapist for Marshfield Clinic in Chippewa Falls from September 1998 to December 1999, and before that worked in the Manitowoc County Human Services Department from January 1996 to August 1998.

She is a graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and received her master’s of social work degree from the same university.

Thomas R. Hoff

Hoff has been the Sawyer County administrator since 2015.

“As the county’s first administrator, (I’ve) led the county through the transition of changing the form of government from county coordinator to county administrator. (I) also perform the duties of the county’s Human Resource director,” Hoff writes in his resume.

He previously served as manager of financial services for the city of Eau Claire from 1990-2015. There, he said his duties including designing “financial systems and reports, develop budgets, and implement processes and controls to ensure regulatory compliance and operational efficiency/accuracy.”

He also worked as a customer service representative for Marten Transport in Mondovi from 1987-90 and as an office manager for Arbor Freight Service in Eau Claire from 1984-87.

He has a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1984 and a master’s degree in business administration from UW-Eau Claire in 2000.

Randy Scholz

Scholz has been the administrative coordinator in Lincoln County since 2010.

“I am currently responsible for a $50 million budget and 450 employees. I have conducted a county-wide Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) audit and ... implements a county wide wage study,” he wrote on his resume submitted to Chippewa County.

Scholz said he also started a county health wellness program that decreased Lincoln County’s health claims by $1.7 million.

During his time with Lincoln County, Scholz said he’s filled in as the county’s maintenance director, highway commissioner, county clerk and social services director.

He served as Lincoln County’s highway commissioner from 2004-2010 and was a highway worker for Lincoln County from 1997-2004.

He is a 1992 graduate in criminal justice from UW-Eau Claire. He had a marketing major-minor in management from Mount Senario College from 1986-89. That college has since gone out of existence.


Local
featured top story
Eagle Point fighting road closure request from railroad

The town of Eagle Point is putting up a fight to prevent 95th Avenue from closing. The town’s insistence on a traffic analysis before signing a road closure agreement means the issue may face a public hearing in 2018.

95th Avenue is just short of a mile long, running from east to west and connecting Highways 178 and 124. A railroad crossing bisects it, though the road only has a simple railroad sign, instead of an active, flashing sign.

However, this road also sits on an opportunity: land that could accommodate railroad tracks.

The Wisconsin Northern Railroad (WNR), a division of Progressive Rail, moved quickly in September. It filed a request with the state’s railroad commissioner to close the road so it could build more tracks over 95th Avenue — new tracks that would let railroad workers assemble trains without having to close down crossings and block traffic on Highway S, WNR is arguing.

95th Avenue is “redundant,” WNR said, since there are similar east-west roads within a mile north and south of 95th.

However, the town’s government is concerned. This isn’t the first time WNR and the town have had a run-in. The railroad requested Eagle Point close the road in 2015, and agreed to conduct a traffic analysis on 95th Avenue before moving forward.

WNR began the analysis but eventually abandoned it. Two years later, WNR is appealing to a higher power: the state’s Commissioner of Railroads.

The railroad did not notify the town before it filed the petition, Eagle Point town chairman Dennis Ferstenou said.

WNR eventually offered the town a proposal: It would give Eagle Point $7,500 — which would be matched with another $7,500 by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, its proposal said — to compensate for the road’s closure.

WNR met with the town on Nov. 14. Ferstenou said he expected the railroad to offer a better incentive at the meeting, but that hope was dashed.

“$15,000 doesn’t meet our expenses for (closing the road),” he said. “We came out of that meeting that we felt the traffic analysis was required. (The railroad) didn’t want to go with that. They wanted to have us sign the voluntary closure agreement.”

Eagle Point has the support of the city of Chippewa Falls, Chippewa County and the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, Ferstenou said. “You can’t just close the road and walk away from it. That only benefits Progressive Rail. … It doesn’t address emergency issues, traffic flow.”

In response to Eagle Point’s refusal, the railroad brought forth a crossing closure study on 95th Avenue, done in July for WNR. Motorists and emergency vehicles might be delayed by the road’s closing, the study said, but alternate routes were available via Highways 124 or 178.

Ultimately, the study concluded, the road “could be safely eliminated.”

Ferstenou has his doubts. “They claim by (closing 95th), they’d release the number of blockages on County S. We haven’t verified that. We have our doubts if it’d prevent blockages on County S for a great length of time,” he said.

The railroad gave up their plans in 2015 due to a downturn in the frac sand business, Ferstenou said. He’s heard concerns that it could happen again.

“With 105th Avenue, there’s a major campground, there’s several subdivisions that access 105th; the road has curves and elevation changes. To put more traffic on that road would be a great safety risk,” he said. “The (traffic analysis) would analyze all of this and recommend the best solution. … We’d hoped they would agree to that.”

The railroad does not agree to the analysis, records show; it only agreed to the analysis in 2015 because then, it was planning to acquire land on which to build new track. “The current closing would allow for connecting existing track,” said Jason Culotta, the railroad’s director of public affairs, in testimony filed with the Commissioner’s office.

At a Monday, Nov. 20, Eagle Point town board meeting, the board decided to stay firm on asking for a traffic analysis.

The problem is gaining county-wide attention. Ann Z. Schell, director of the Chippewa-Eau Claire Metropolitan Planning organization, filed testimony on Oct. 31, calling the PGR’s decision to move forward without a TIA “irresponsible.”

Eagle Point and Chippewa County have until Dec. 11 to file rebuttal testimony, Ferstenou said. The railroad will have eight days after that to file additional rebuttal; finally, a public hearing will be held at a future date, most likely after Jan. 1, 2018.

Eagle Point must have a space for public comment on the day of the hearing.

This story will be updated with comments from Wisconsin Northwestern Railroad on Monday, Nov. 27.


Business
AP
As shoppers mobilize on Thanksgiving, retailers branch out

NEW YORK — Shoppers are hitting the stores on Thanksgiving and finding some surprises: toys and TVs at J.C. Penney, Barbies at Best Buy, kitchen appliances like wine refrigerators at B.J.’s.

As the holiday shopping season officially kicked off Thursday, retailers are counting on a lift from a better economy. But they’re also looking beyond economic data and mapping out ways to pick up sales from other retailers as Amazon expands its reach.

That can mean opening earlier than rivals on the holidays or even jumping into new product categories. The fight for market share comes as analysts at Bain say Amazon is expected to take half of the holiday season’s sales growth. And Amazon is the top destination for people to begin holiday shopping, according to a September study by market research firm NPD Group.

“The retailers are in survival mode. It’s about stealing each other’s market share,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. “Amazon is the Grinch. They’re stealing the growth.”

With the jobless rate at a 17-year-low of 4.1 percent and consumer confidence stronger than a year ago, analysts project healthy sales increases for November and December. The National Retail Federation trade group expects sales for that period to at least match last year’s rise of 3.6 percent and estimates online spending and other non-store sales will rise 11 to 15 percent.

Amazon is expected to be a big beneficiary as it cements loyalty among its Prime members and moves into new services and private-label merchandise. The company has introduced more than 20 such brands in the past two years in clothing, electronics, groceries and more, says Bain.

That leaves stores looking at rivals to see where they can pick up sales. There are extra dollars up for grabs this year, after thousands of store locations have closed and several retailers including Gymboree and Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy protection.

Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart’s U.S. division, said that the retail giant’s holiday shopping season appeared to be off to a good start. It got things going in the first minutes of Thursday with an online sales event that featured a range of deals from toys to TVs to slow cookers and Google Home mini gadgets.

“We are in good shape,” Foran told The Associated Press. “We have a bit of momentum and we had a good kickoff online, and with a bit of luck we are going to have a good 24 hours and be ship shape for the weekend, and go from here to the 25th of December.”

Target CEO Brian Cornell recently noted that up to $60 billion in consumer spending will be up for the taking in the next few years, and said the chain has been picking up market share in such areas as clothing.

The Thanksgiving weekend, when stores go all-out to attract shoppers, can be an indication of how well they’ll do through the season. About 69 percent of Americans, or 164 million people, intend to shop at some point during the five-day period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, according to a survey released by the National Retail Federation. It expects Black Friday to remain the busiest day, with about 115 million people planning to shop then.

Stores like Macy’s, Target and Kohl’s were set to open Thursday evening as they try to woo early shoppers. Walmart was set to start deals in its stores at 6 p.m. J.C. Penney opened its doors at 2 p.m., an hour earlier than last year and at least three hours ahead of its department store rivals.

Judy St. Antoine, 60, of St. Petersburg, Florida, said she arrived at the JC Penney in her city about 10 minutes before the store’s 2 p.m. opening. There were already two lines of a couple hundred people each, waiting to get inside.

Mary Bergeron, 62, of Tampa, bought an oil-less fryer, a waffle maker and a steamer at JC Penney, and was headed back for more.

“It’s a tradition. We come here every year,” she said, adding that she’d eaten turkey at noon. “It’s crazy, there are so many people and it gets tense. It’s fun.”

Some retailers are using the weekend to test new product areas before committing to them year-round: Penney had TVs and consumer electronics like game consoles as doorbusters for Thanksgiving and Black Friday only. Penney has also added year-round toy shops and increased its selection of work pants as an apparent move to grab market share from Sears, after last year going back to selling major appliances.

Penney’s Senior Vice President James Starke called these moves “market share plays.”

Both Walmart and Target have been expanding their exclusive toy offerings. Walmart is throwing parties in its stores including ones where kids can play with new toys. Best Buy created its first toy booklet for the holidays. And in its Black Friday ad, the chain features Barbies among smart TVs and other electronics.

Chris Baldwin, CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club, says it is offering more toys and clothes. In clothing, it’s offering key national brands in areas like casual athletic wear amid rampant store closures. And he says clothing sales are up by at least 10 percent as people don’t go to the mall as much.

“There’s no question that consumer spending has started to tick up and confidence is a little bit better, which is terrific, but we are also seeing some benefit from other retailers,” he said.


Pascarella


JIM ANDERSON, ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Denver Walmart Supercenter employee Aaron Sanford stocks toys on shelves Wednesday in preparation for a Thanksgiving night rush that kicks off Black Friday weekend. Retailers are kicking off the holiday shopping season with an eye toward wooing shoppers away from rivals.