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Staff photo by Dan Reiland  

Steam rose off the Chippewa River amidst the frozen branches as temperatures reached 29 degrees below zero on Wednesday. View more photos at

UW-Eau Claire senior turns time with homeless people into effort to help them

The first time Erica Darflinger walked into the Positive Avenues day shelter in downtown Eau Claire, she was more than a little afraid.

Darflinger, a 22-year-old UW-Eau Claire senior, found herself at Positive Avenues in September as part of a social work class she is taking at the university. The agency, operated by Lutheran Social Services, is a space in the basement of a building at 320 Putnam St. where some of the city’s homeless residents and others in need spend time during the day.

“I was terrified,” Darflinger said of her initial experience at Positive Avenues. “I led a sheltered life. I never saw homelessness growing up. And then there I was, face to face with it.”

Darflinger spent time throughout last semester at Positive Avenues, taking part in a variety of tasks and getting to know the people whose routines include spending time at that location. She became familiar with some of them personally, learning about the challenges they face and their hopes.

Those experiences fueled Darflinger’s desire to help people in need. Late last year she decided to conduct a Facebook fundraiser for blankets for homeless residents and others who need them.

“The idea to do this just came to me,” Darflinger said Wednesday. “It seemed like it was a way to help.”

Thanks to her effort and the power of social media to spread messages to many, more than $600 was raised to purchase material to make the blankets.

“I never envisioned this would raise that much money,” Darflinger said, noting one donor gave $100. “I was amazed that one post created that kind of an outcome.”

Darflinger purchased material from a fabric store, and her idea turned into a labor of love. She, her boyfriend and family members spent hour after hour tying 57 blankets to be donated.

Darflinger downplayed the work that went into tying so many blankets. But Positive Avenues manager Sue Howe was impressed with that work.

“That’s a lot of work they did to help people in need,” Howe said of Darflinger and her family.

On Wednesday those blankets were stacked in a large, multi-colored pile on a table at Positive Avenues, available to anyone in need. For a time nobody chose a blanket. Then one woman asked Darflinger if she could have one. When Darflinger replied “yes,” others approached and perused the pile before choosing one.

“This one is so pretty. It reminds me of my grandmother,” one woman said after picking a mostly pink blanket highlighted with blue portions.

Darflinger interacted with people choosing blankets, smiling as she watched one person after another walk away with one of the warm items. The blankets were especially welcome given that the temperature reached a frigid 30 degrees below zero and was predicted to plummet to -32 degrees today.

Those choosing the blankets were appreciative of Darflinger’s effort.

“For someone to do this for us, it means a lot,” said Gary Spear, an Eau Claire resident who said he has been homeless on and off for the past five years.

Such responses were heartening to Darflinger, she said.

“Especially given this weather, for this donation to happen on this day, it is so appropriate,” Darflinger said. “It’s like it was meant to be ... I just wanted to help people in need in some way.”

Foxconn factory jobs touted by Trump will not come to pass

MADISON — Electronics giant Foxconn reversed course and announced Wednesday that the huge Wisconsin plant that was supposed to bring a bounty of blue-collar factory jobs back to the Midwest — and was lured with billions in tax incentives — will instead be primarily a research and development center staffed by scientists and engineers.

The move was decried in some quarters as a case of bait-and-switch by the Taiwan-based company, which originally planned to build high-tech liquid crystal display screens in a project President Donald Trump had proudly pointed to as a sign of a resurgence in American manufacturing.

In a statement, Foxconn said it remains committed to Wisconsin and the creation of the 13,000 jobs it promised. But because the global market environment that existed when the $10 billion project was announced in 2017 has shifted, “this has necessitated the adjustment of plans for all projects.”

“This news is devastating for the taxpayers of Wisconsin,” said Wisconsin Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, a Democrat. “We were promised manufacturing jobs. We were promised state-of-the-art LCD production. ... And now, it appears Foxconn is living up to their failed track record in the U.S. — leaving another state and community high and dry.”

Economic officials and other supporters of the project urged patience, saying Foxconn still plans to invest what it promised. The White House had no immediate comment.

Foxconn, a major supplier to Apple, is the world’s largest contract maker of electronics.

Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn’s CEO, was quoted as telling Reuters that it is scaling back and possibly shelving plans to build display screens in Wisconsin because “we can’t compete.”

Woo said that instead of a factory, Foxconn wants to create a “technology hub,” with about three-quarters of the jobs in research and development and design. Those jobs typically go to college graduates. The plant is under construction and scheduled to open in 2020.

Marc Levine, senior fellow and founding director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center of Economic Development, called it “one enormous bait-and-switch.” And he scoffed at the idea that Foxconn, known for manufacturing, could transform into a research and development giant.

“That’s simply not what Foxconn is,” Levine said in an email. “So the notion that there will be 13,000 research jobs at Foxconn is highly, highly unlikely.”

The company initially billed the massive 20 million-square-foot (1.86 million-square-meter) Wisconsin complex as its first North American manufacturing site for the next generation of display panels to be used in a wide variety of products, including large-screen TVs, self-driving cars, notebooks and other monitors.

Wisconsin state and local governments promised roughly $4 billion to Foxconn, the biggest incentive package in state history and the biggest pledged by a state to a foreign corporation in U.S. history. Foxconn was required to invest $10 billion and create 13,000 jobs to get the full incentives.

It had already fallen short last year, hiring 178 full-time employees rather than the 260 targeted, and failed to earn a state tax credit worth up to $9.5 million.

Former Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican who brokered the deal, emphasized in a tweet Wednesday that Foxconn earns tax credits only for actual investment and job creation. “No jobs/investment? No credits. Period,” Walker tweeted.

Republican legislative leaders who pushed the project blamed new Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for Foxconn’s changing plans. They said he had created an air of economic uncertainty by supporting elimination of a manufacturing tax credit program.

Evers was critical of Foxconn in the campaign against Walker but did not pledge to undo the deal. His top aide Joel Brennan said that the administration was surprised by the news from Foxconn. He did not address the accusations Evers was to blame.

Court case delayed for man charged in Girl Scouts' deaths

CHIPPEWA FALLS — The criminal court case of a man accused of huffing from an aerosol cannister, then driving his pickup truck into a group of five people, killing four, on Nov. 3 will be delayed for more than two months while attorneys wait for toxicology results.

Colten R. Treu, 21, 1060 Joseph St., is charged in Chippewa County Court with four counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, four counts of hit and run-involving death, and one count each of hit and run-causing great bodily harm, intentionally abusing hazardous materials and bail jumping. Treu reportedly struck a group of Girl Scouts and one of their mothers.

Treu appeared via video Wednesday from the Chippewa County Jail, joined by his two attorneys. His attorneys requested the delay.

“At this time, we would ask to put this on the calendar for a preliminary hearing, and keep this moving forward,” said defense attorney Carly Sebion.

“Everyone is waiting on toxicology reports, is that correct?” Judge James Isaacson asked the attorneys.

Chippewa County district attorney Wade Newell said it is likely 60 days before the toxicology reports come back from the state lab. Isaacson set the return date for the afternoon of April 12, allowing for up to three hours of discussion that day. No trial dates have been set.

Treu remains in jail on a $250,000 cash bond. He did not speak during the short hearing. He previously waived all time limits on future proceedings in his case.

Several family members of the victims attended the hearing.

According to the criminal complaint, a group of five adults and seven children from Girl Scout Troop 3055 were picking up trash on Highway P in Lake Hallie, south of the Highway 29 overpass, when Treu’s truck struck the group at 11:40 a.m. Nov. 3.

Killed were Jayna S. Kelley, 9, Autum A. Helgeson, 10, both of Lake Hallie, Haylee J. Hickle, 10, and her mother, Sara Jo Schneider, 32, both of the town of Lafayette.

A fifth person, Madalyn Zwiefelhofer, was hospitalized for three weeks, but has since been released and is back in Chippewa Falls.

Treu admitted to police he saw the troop of Girl Scouts, describing them “as wearing highly visible reflective vests,” moments before he crashed his black Ford F-150 pickup truck into five people, killing four.

Treu told authorities that he and his roommate, John Stender, had just purchased Dustoff, a keyboard cleaner, and began “huffing” the chemicals to get high. Treu said he took “two short huffs,” and Stender had taken a few more huffs. Huffing involves inhaling fumes and sprays typically from an aerosol can for the purpose of achieving a high.

Treu claims “he lost control of the vehicle and fishtailed after Mr. Stender grabbed the steering wheel from him,” according to the criminal complaint.

It is unclear if Stender will also be charged. No charges have been filed at this time.

Police obtained a written statement from Stender, who admits he grabbed the wheel of the vehicle to correct Treu’s driving, but Treu yelled at him, grabbed the wheel and swerved hard, causing the truck to cross over Highway P, enter the ditch, and strike the five people.

Treu did not stop after striking the five individuals. He drove his black truck to his home, put it in the garage, and placed another vehicle in front of it.

The deceased girls attended Southview Elementary and Halmstad Elementary in Chippewa Falls.

Status of superintendent's contract unclear

The Eau Claire school board has until today to make a decision regarding Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck’s future with the district, but board members aren’t saying if they have chosen whether she will remain in that job.

The board met Tuesday to discuss Hardebeck’s job performance and whether to extend her contract, a two-year agreement that ends June 30. Hardebeck has been Eau Claire schools superintendent since August 2012.

Board President Joe Luginbill scheduled a follow-up meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday to again consider Hardebeck’s job performance and contract, but that session was subsequently canceled. As of late Wednesday the board had not scheduled another meeting to discuss Hardebeck’s job performance and contract.

District officials previously said the board had until today to make a decision about Hardebeck’s contract.

If the board were to take no action regarding her contract by the end of today, it automatically would be extended for two years.

Board members did not return calls seeking comment on the situation.

Tuesday marked the sixth board meeting about Hardebeck’s contract. Those closed-session meetings have taken place since Nov. 19.

Typically the board meets once or twice to discuss and evaluate the superintendent’s job performance as part of an annual evaluation. Contract extensions most often are granted for one or two years.

Luginbill previously confirmed that the board has met multiple times to assess Hardebeck’s job evaluation and contract, but he declined to discuss whether the board is considering not extending her contract or to answer questions about her job performance. Other board members have declined to comment as well.