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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : opinions : opinions
June 25, 2019

3/21/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our view
Petco, Oneida County must be turned away from taxpayer trough

When Drs. Foster and Smith were in their heyday, the nation and the world clamored for their online pet supply products, everything from Fido's pharmaceuticals to grooming tools to pet stain removers.

Now, if only there was a Petco stain remover we could use to get the stain of Foster and Smith's successor company off of Oneida County.

Petco, of course, bought Drs. Foster and Smith in 2015 when that company's founders retired. In the years since, Petco has devastated our communities with its predatory behavior and now it appears it is looking to add insult to injury.

We hasten to add that Race Foster and Marty Smith remain heroes to us. They built an iconic company and brand that provided many family supporting jobs through the years, almost single-handedly supporting a middle-class infrastructure in the county.

And when they sold the company, Petco promised to keep what they had built in Rhinelander, and to sustain the jobs so crucial to the lives of so many. Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith tried, but Petco did not keep its word.

Perhaps the company should never have been expected to, for it is a massive corporation, and big business is most often in the business of plundering communities, not sustaining them. Just look around the Midwest.

Now Petco is back at the trough. Not content to just to throw hundreds of people out of work, the company is working with some county officials to cast off its local property onto the backs of county taxpayers by having Oneida County purchase most of the facility and property.

We don't know who actually hatched this cracked egg of an idea - Petco, some county supervisors, or economic development officials - but it's a bad deal all the way around, and it's not just Petco that's being a bad actor, we should point out.

Let us count the red flags.

The first is the always ongoing back-channel efforts to get a new highway facility by some officials and supervisors, despite the county's vote to nix Kwik Trip's offer to buy the current property, opting instead to bring the current facility up to speed. Indeed, the county has been expending dollars to do just that.

Nonetheless, supervisor Robb Jensen keeps bringing the subject of a highway facility review up at the public works committee he chairs - ostensibly to deliver a recommendation to the administration committee - but, as supervisor Scott Holewinski pointed out last December, the county had already made a decision to move forward with a renovation and upgrade of the current facility at a lesser cost.

Now Mr. Jensen has every right to place his discussion on the agenda for reconsideration, but so far that committee has taken no formal vote to pursue a relocation of the highway department, nor has the county board.

So that makes us wonder why there are so many shadowy efforts to get all the ducks lined up, such as making sure Kwik Trip is still interested in the current highway property.

Of particular concern is the informal maneuvering by Stacey Johnson, the executive director of the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation, an organization that itself operates in secrecy. It seems she's all over the place working on behalf of supervisors who want a new highway facility.

As we found out last December, Ms. Johnson has been in contact with Kwik Trip - yes, yes, they are still interested! - despite the county previously rejecting Kwik Trip's bid to buy that property and despite lacking any official committee sanction to pursue those talks on behalf of the county.

Now she turns up, as supervisor Bob Mott puts it, as Petco's local contact for the effort to sell the property to the county, again without any official county sanction asking her to act on the county's behalf.

To be fair, Ms. Johnson has appeared at various public works committee meetings reporting her efforts with Kwik Trip and her talks with Petco, and it seems someone is asking to undertake these activities. But her reports always seem after the fact. She should be seeking permission to conduct those talks, and it doesn't matter whether some individual supervisor has asked her to do so informally.

It's true that Ms. Johnson does not work for Oneida County, but it's also true that these potential actions need county support and dollars, and working with individual supervisors or with small groups of supervisors to undermine established county policy is not in our opinion appropriate behavior.

In fact, it suggests a concerted behind-the-scenes scheme to overturn that policy, and to do so largely out of public view.

It's one thing for Ms. Johnson to convey an interest from Petco, if that is what they indicated, or vice versa, and to put everyone together. It's quite another to act as Petco's local contact, or to work individually with supervisors to pursue a course of action outside the county's public process, complete with "no-press-allowed" private tours.

Yes, one of OCEDC's missions is to act "as a conduit between business and government on a local, regional, state, and federal level," but that role needs to be between business and official government entities pursuing enacted policies or approved exploratory recommendations, not enabling the whims of individual officials with their own agendas.

What's more, neither of these efforts will help economic development in Oneida County - more about that in a minute - but it will aid a massive expansion of government. Indeed, as Mr. Mott described Ms. Johnson's vision, in part, on the county board floor, "Stacey explained her vision for the building as a local, area, and regional center for government ....."

What an opportunity! With all this talk designed to expand government infrastructure, we might as well rename the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation as the Oneida County Big Government Development Corporation.

There's more red flags. At least Mr. Jensen puts the highway facility on the public works agenda, but Mr. Mott - another supervisor who has supported a new highway facility - has pursued the study committee as a lone wolf. He says he toured the Petco facility as vice-chairman of the transit commission, but we don't see the Petco facility on any recent transit commission agendas.

Yet, there he is, working in tandem with Ms. Johnson, who appears to be working as Petco's de facto real estate agent, at least for purposes of facilitating what would be in effect a taxpayer bailout of the Petco property.

Not least, the Petco tours were not going to be open to the public, and still may not be unless Petco relents, and Ms. Johnson's support of Petco's secrecy is even more troubling. In this regard we echo supervisor Jack Sorenson's concern about violating the open meetings law.

On the county board floor, Mr. Mott, for a time, insisted on continuing tours of the property in ways to avoid committee quorums. That in itself is a violation of the spirit of the open meetings law.

What's more, acting in a concerted manner to avoid quorums would be an absolute violation if it resulted in a decision by the county board to pursue a particular course of action. Deliberately orchestrating government action to avoid public scrutiny is not just walking a fine line, it's crashing over it.

Kudos to Sorenson, Jensen, and supervisor Alan VanRaalte for assuring a modicum of transparency going forward.

Mr. Mott's lone wolf actions are troubling in another way. His singular resolution avoided any committee vetting of this proposal. As Mr. Jensen made clear, the public works committee has made no decision about whether this facility would even be a feasible alternative, and it is that opinion that counts because if the highway department can't move there, the deal is dead.

That feasibility, or the idea of any study committee, should have come through the public works committee process, and that process and feasibility should have been debated there before going to the county board, no matter how long it took. The same goes for any work by Ms. Johnson; that should have been by a vote of at least the public works committee.

Instead, it comes from a lone wolf working with Ms. Johnson and the company, and establishing timelines that apparently Petco is dictating. It looks like the resolution is intended to force the county to make a quick decision, with subtle hints that Petco won't wait longer than 60 days.

That's so much hooey. If Petco has a buyer before the county is ready to make up its mind, it should sell to that buyer. In fact, a sale to a commercial enterprise - an expansion of the private sector rather than an expansion of the public sector - is preferable anyway.

It will actually create jobs rather than just shiny new offices for existing government workers.

As Mr. Sorensen pointed out, considering this purchase means recalculating every cost - the cost to build, the cost to renovate, the cost of remodeling the current facility, the cost or income derived from Kwik Trip, the subsidies supplied by any TIF districts, etc. - a daunting task that cannot be accomplished in 60 days.

A couple of other points about the supposed benefits of a purchase.

First, moving the highway department there will require expensive renovations of that property, and those costs could be astronomical. Period. That's another point Mr. Sorensen made in reference to another county purchase. To pretend the highway department can just pack up and move over to "a nearly new facility without nearly that large an investment" is nonsense, even with a bargain basement sale price.

Second, the idea that the county will lease space to commercial enterprises and realize significant government revenues is more folly. As Mr. VanRaalte pointed out, the county's real-estate deals have been anything but stellar. Indeed, the last thing we need is county government acting as a landlord for the private sector. That is not its mission.

If anybody thinks government-run business incubators are a good idea, just take a drive down to Wauwatosa and stroll down Innovation Drive and its parade of empty office buildings. Since the park opened in 2011, it attracted one private-sector office building development, along with a smattering of tenants.

Think county government will do any better in Rhinelander? Mr. VanRaalte referred to these empty spaces as carrying costs, and we expect the county would be carrying a lot of those costs.

Finally, it is more folly to think a new Kwik Trip will create jobs and stimulate the economy. As we have observed before, that Kwik Trip will represent a redistribution of existing commerce, not new economic activity. It will shift customers from other convenience stores and gas stations to its own site, thereby costing those existing businesses income.

To that point, supervisor Jim Winkler said at the county board meeting that some of his Newbold constituents want a Kwik Trip at the current highway department location. We bet they do. But that means the places where they now do business will lose them.

If the market falls that way, the market falls that way, but the county should not be picking winners and losers and facilitating that shift. And neither should the OCEDC.

As we proceed, transparency is of the utmost importance. So is conducting business through the proper channels - the public rather than the back channels - and taking the time to fully understand the implications of creating what we believe is a gigantic government boondoggle waiting to happen (or, as Mr. Sorensen put it, a can of worms).

Certainly the county should be in no rush and should not worry about Petco abandoning them. The company has already done that. Petco has already left its ugly mark on Oneida County.

The only question now is whether the OCEDC and county government will let the stain soak in for good.

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