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Hy-Vee proposes demolishing former Kmart store

Iowa-based grocery chain Hy-Vee is moving forward with plans to build a grocery store on the site of a former Clairemont Avenue Kmart store.

The Eau Claire Plan Commission is slated Monday to discuss a proposed site plan for the building, 2424 E. Clairemont Ave., which would turn the shuttered big box store into a full-service grocery store.

Hy-Vee is proposing demolishing the store, which faces south, and its parking lot, according to city documents. The store was built in 1963.

A one-story, 96,000-square-foot Hy-Vee grocery store would replace it, facing west toward Memorial High School, with a parking lot between the store and Fairfax Street.

Hy-Vee operates more than 240 retail stores throughout the Midwest, including one in Madison and two in Fitchburg. Some of its stores offer catering, flowers and photo and pharmacy services in addition to food.

The company said in April 2019 it had signed a purchase agreement for the vacant Kmart store, which sits on about 10 acres.

Hy-Vee in July conducted surveys and environmental testing at the site, “going through some due diligence items that we have to do prior to purchasing the site,” said Christina Gayman, Hy-Vee director of public relations.

According to city tax records, the property’s current owner is Clairemont Properties, and property records list an address for real estate developer Commonweal Development.

Hy-Vee hasn’t set a construction start date for the proposed Eau Claire store, Gayman told the Leader-Telegram Wednesday.

The store would hire about 400 employees, including about 100 full-time employees, said John Brehm, Hy-Vee site planning director, in an Aug. 2 letter to Eau Claire community development director Scott Allen.

The company doesn’t plan to release the cost of the project, Gayman said.

The property was last sold in August 2009 for $3.8 million, according to city property records.

The Hy-Vee store may include a floral shop, wine and spirits section, Market Grille restaurant, pharmacy, dietitian services, coffee shop, apparel section, food court and electric vehicle charging, Brehm said in the letter.

Gayman said Wednesday the company hasn’t confirmed which amenities the Eau Claire store will offer.

The parking lot would span 552 parking stalls, including 20 stalls for a business next door.

A Hy-Vee seasonal display would cover 50 to 60 stalls, and snow storage would cover another 50 to 60 stalls depending on the year, according to the site plan.

The building’s west side, facing a Holiday gas station, would be the store’s main entrance. The south side of the building facing Clairemont Avenue would become a pharmacy and online pickup area.

Hy-Vee is proposing three entryways to the store: Ridge Road from the north, Fairfax Street from the west and a new south entrance to the store from Clairemont Avenue.

The site plan noted: “We are proposing the addition of a right-in, right-out access point off Clairemont to open up access to the site, relieve traffic pressure off Pleasant Street and make getting to the store more intuitive.”

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will conduct an analysis to decide if a Clairemont Avenue entrance is needed, and a new entrance would need DOT approval, according to the city Community Development division.

The store would likely recycle much of the demolished building and re-use the pavement, Brehm said.

Hy-Vee is also requesting four stalls of bicycle parking in its site plan, instead of a required 45 stalls.

Kmart closed the store in February 2015, according to Leader-Telegram records.

The Plan Commission is slated to meet at 7 p.m. Monday at the Eau Claire County Courthouse, 721 Oxford Ave., Room 1277.

Council members seek to hold campaigns accountable

With Eau Claire expected to attract visits from multiple presidential candidates before the November 2020 election, a pair of City Council members are seeking to ensure the city doesn’t get stuck with the bill for providing security around those events.

Council members Andrew Werthmann and Kate Beaton announced an effort Wednesday to hold presidential campaigns accountable for the cost of the Eau Claire Police Department keeping candidates and attendees safe at campaign stops in the city.

“We’re going to see a lot of campaigns coming through here in the next 15 months, and we’ve got to be ready for that,” Werthmann said.

The announcement stems from city officials reporting that Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still owe the city $54,210 in police and public safety costs related to campaign events in 2016.

The Trump campaign was sent an invoice for $47,398 related to an April 2 appearance at Memorial High School, and the Clinton campaign was billed $6,812 for an event the same day at The Lismore hotel. Neither bill has been paid, according to Eau Claire Police Chief Gerald Staniszewski.

Beaton called that “unacceptable” and said she has heard from a number of city residents expressing outrage since a Leader-Telegram story on July 28 detailing the unpaid bills.

“This is something that is a huge problem and we want to be prepared for 2020 and working with candidates ahead of time so they are paying their bills and we are still providing security,” Beaton said, acknowledging the importance of ensuring security in an era when political tensions are high.

A key concern, she said, is that the resources expended for security at campaign events are taking away from an already tight police budget intended to keep residents safe year-round.

Werthmann and Beaton said the goal is to work with campaigns ahead of events to anticipate and pay for security and traffic needs. They have begun conversations with city staff and police officials about how to craft an ordinance that could hold campaigns accountable while still keeping people safe and not infringing on candidates’ right to free speech.

“What we can’t do is in any way hinder the free assembly of folks or the ability of presidential candidates being able to be here in the community,” Werthmann said.

Council President Terry Weld said he supports the concept of being proactive to protect taxpayers from bearing the brunt of security costs associated with campaign events, but wants to make sure any new policy doesn’t infringe on anybody’s First Amendment rights or deny Eau Claire residents the opportunity to see and hear candidates.

Neither Beaton nor Werthmann said they were concerned that presidential candidates might just leave Eau Claire — as the region’s largest media market and a strategic location along Interstate 94 — off their itineraries if the city forces them to foot the bill for security.

“My sentiment is that Wisconsin is going to be a primary focus of the presidential campaigns, that we are one of the most important states of the whole election and that this is one of the purplest parts of this purple state,” Beaton said.

While she is excited about all of the anticipated attention from candidates, Beaton said she doesn’t think it’s fair if it results in a big drain on the city’s police budget.

“I’m hoping presidential candidates come to Eau Claire and know this year is different and they can’t take advantage of public resources without paying their bill in Eau Claire or anywhere else,” she said.

It is her understanding, Beaton said, that other communities across the nation also are looking into ways to hold campaigns financially responsible for additional security costs their events generate.

Bolton Refuge House podcast aims to reach wider audience

Olivia Blaylock and Ashley Kanuscak needed an idea.

Part of their jobs at Bolton Refuge House involved outreach, but they hadn’t found much success engaging people, especially in smaller communities. Bolton Refuge House focuses on advocacy and shelter for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, topics that can be difficult to discuss.

“We just weren’t getting a healthy response back, because no one really likes to talk about that,” Blaylock said.

To potentially increase interest, Kanuscak, the Jackson County domestic violence advocate, suggested a different approach: a podcast featuring information and real-life stories from survivors. They received approval to go ahead with the idea, secured funding for audio equipment and launched “Silence No More” in May, about six weeks after Kanuscak’s suggestion.

“We wanted to reach people in a new and innovative way,” Kanuscak said. “We thought if they could listen, maybe it would start some private conversations that would stem from there.”

“Silence No More” comes out every Tuesday and Thursday and is available through Apple Podcasts and other providers on smartphones and digital devices. Kanuscak hosts Tidbit Tuesdays, which features shorter informational episodes about topics like gaslighting — psychological manipulation — and abuse toward men. Blaylock, the Buffalo County domestic violence and sexual assault advocate, handles Thursday episodes that include longer interviews with survivors, family members and experts in various fields related to domestic violence and sexual assault.

Part of the goal involves giving survivors a platform to tell their stories while adhering to their privacy. In episodes detailing personal accounts, names and sometimes voices are changed for the safety and protection of survivors and anyone else involved in their story.

“We really wanted to be raw and realistic,” Kanuscak said. “Some of our episodes can be really graphic, but we really wanted to have survivors have their own voice. We didn’t want to censor or tailor anything that they were going to say. We really wanted them to be as open and honest as they could be.”

The audio medium involved a new venture for Kanuscak and Blaylock, who both enjoy listening to podcasts but had never recorded their own. In the first three months, they have received significant amounts of encouraging feedback in person and online, something they didn’t totally expect.

The podcast has a fair amount of local listeners and notable audiences in Chicago and New York. People have even listened from places like Switzerland, Canada and Mexico.

“That was the moment where I realized, ‘Hey, this is really working,’” Kanuscak said. “...It makes me feel good that the community has kind of rallied around us.”

Some listeners have sent emails with compliments, questions or ideas for the podcast, some of which Kanuscak incorporated into Tidbit Tuesday episodes on topics like gaslighting and emotional abuse.

“I really want to reach my audience, so I do take suggestions,” Kanuscak said. “I want them to get the material that they want to get out of the podcast.”

They both hope for more audience input asking them to discuss a particular topic.

“It makes it fun,” Blaylock said. “The whole reason we’re doing this is to educate people.”

Now that the podcast has several episodes available, survivors have expressed willingness to talk to them about certain topics or sharing their background stories, a pleasant surprise for the employees.

“I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but I think they find it therapeutic to tell their story,” Blaylock said. “A lot of times after they tell their story, I hear things like, ‘Wow, I’m really glad I did that. I was so nervous at first.’”

The podcast hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Blaylock and Kanuscak faced a steep technical learning curve early on, and they are still working to make the audio sound as clear and seamless as possible.

Another challenge involved funding for the audio equipment and software to produce the podcast. Blaylock and Kanuscak record separately because they live and work in different locations, so paying for two microphones and editing software has proved difficult for a nonprofit organization like Bolton Refuge.

Overall, though, the project has involved much more upside than downside. Blaylock and Kanuscak have a one-year plan in mind and will figure out where to take the podcast from there.

Blaylock and Kanuscak have unpredictable schedules and the podcast is only a small part of their jobs, so they record whenever they find time. Despite the limited funding and occasional stresses involved, they have found the podcast to be an extremely rewarding experience.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Kanuscak said. “I can honestly say that. It’s helped me grow ... professionally and personally. It really has benefited me.”

After searching for outreach options, “Silence No More” has blossomed to reach citizens far and wide.