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Altoona asks children for thoughts on life in the city

ALTOONA — To see how the city’s doing and get ideas for its future, Altoona’s mayor sought the opinions of some of his youngest constituents.

Brendan Pratt showed the results of those listening sessions on Friday morning to 130 local business and community leaders gathered for the annual State of Altoona speech sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.

Projected onto a large screen in River Prairie Center, attendees saw Pratt ask several groups of school-age students about things they like about living in Altoona and things they’d want to see changed.

Reasons the children and teens gave for enjoying life in Altoona included the city’s parks, its history, a growing selection of businesses, swimming and fishing at Lake Altoona and seeing the community develop while also keeping a small-town feel where people know and care about each other.

Among the things they’d like to see come to Altoona are more small locally-grown businesses, community gardens, improvements to city roads and, somehow, less snow.

After the video of Pratt’s listening sessions with the schoolchildren, city administrator Michael Golat explained why it’s important to look toward younger residents for insights.

“What you want your city to become is learned at a young age,” Golat said. “And those values don’t change.”

A lot of things the children mentioned reflected efforts the city has undertaken in recent years to improve the quality of life for Altoona’s entire population.

Having activities that everyone — including children — can participate in was frequently mentioned as a positive for the city in the listening sessions.

“This was the one message that the kids were absolutely consistent on,” Golat said.

He added that in about the last five years, the city has invested more in quality of life aspects such as parks and places for outdoor festivals.

One such example was Rock’n on the River, a series of free concerts during Wednesday evenings in summer in an amphitheater the city created in its River Prairie development.

Not knowing what to expect in its inaugural year, Golat said the city hoped at least 200 people would show up to the first concert. More than 1,500 showed up the first night and attendance was consistent throughout the summer.

“That was a big surprise last year,” Golat said.

One student in Pratt’s videos said he’d like to see “more houses, more people, more money” coming into Altoona. Golat remarked that child could have a future as a city manager someday.

Affordable housing

Also during Friday morning’s speech, Pratt mentioned that the city had sealed a deal to buy a former assisted living facility, which will be used as part of the region’s effort to address its housing shortage.

“(Thursday) night we officially became owners of the building,” Pratt said.

The city purchased 1511 Devney Drive, a former Care Partners facility that has been vacant for three years. Renovations utilizing volunteer labor will convert the building into 24 apartments, which Pratt said could be ready for occupancy in late summer.

Including purchase of the building and materials for the renovation, the city anticipates the project will cost about $935,000.

Lutheran Social Services will manage the apartment building, which will rent half of its units at market rate and the other half will be reserved for income-eligible residents.

Members of JONAH, a local social justice group that has taken up affordable housing as one of its causes, stood alongside Pratt as he spoke about the Devney Drive project.

Susan Wolfgram, co-chairwoman of JONAH’s affordable housing task force, called the project “the first intentional affordable housing partnership in Eau Claire County.”

She added that the project meets many of JONAH’s ideals for affordable housing, including having people of different income levels living together.

JONAH members and C&M Properties & Construction owner Cody Filipczak had roles in creating the Devney Drive project and will help with renovations.

The project was born from meetings of the Chippewa Valley Regional Housing Task Force, an effort that Pratt introduced at last year’s State of Altoona address.


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Front row seat to history

When 11-year-old Nancy Nugent first laid eyes on the 21 Nazi war criminals seated across the room from her, she could hardly fathom the full extent of the atrocities those men had committed. “I was kind of overwhelmed,” Nancy Meier, as she is known today, shares with me 72 years later.

Nancy and I are at her great-grandson’s birthday party just outside of Eau Claire, and as the children play, she tells me about her unlikely journey from Merrill, Wis., to the Nuremberg Trials.

Her front row seat to history was hardly happenstance, but the result of being the daughter of Capt. Ambrose H. Nugent, an artilleryman in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, who, in the aftermath of World War II, remained in Germany as part of the Allied forces’ occupation of the region. For two weeks in August of 1946, Nancy, her 14-year-old sister, Barbara, and their two younger siblings, traveled unaccompanied for 4,000 miles from Merrill to Nuremberg to reunite with their father. Upon their arrival, the children were astonished to find a country that, though recently defeated by Allied troops, was generally welcoming to their newly-arrived American neighbors. Nancy’s younger siblings regularly played alongside German children, while she and her sister Barbara were allowed to walk to the Kaserne where their father was assigned. Other explorations of the area were restricted due to dangers posed by the ruins caused by extensive bombing.

Though no formal schooling was offered to the American children at that time, Captain Nugent lost little sleep over it. “My dad said frequently that it would not be any problem for us missing school … because we would learn more about history (by experiencing it) than we would in any improvised classroom. And,” Nancy says, “he was right.”

The children’s education began on the train journey from the port in Bremerhaven to Nuremberg. From out the window, Nancy observed glimpses of German life in the aftermath of war: from the pair of young German children rummaging in garbage barrels near the U.S. Army barracks to a countryside ravaged by bombs. Not long after settling in their home just outside of Nuremberg, Nancy and her siblings accompanied their father to Dachau concentration camp, where between 1933 and its liberation in 1945, more than 30,000 prisoners were killed.

The camp too, had been the site of inhumane medical experiments, killing nearly 100 prisoners in the process. Though Nancy had some understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust, Dachau brought those horrors into sharper focus. The barracks still stood, as did the nearby crematorium, both of which had been in use just 16 months prior. Weeks after that haunting visit to the camp, when Nancy’s father arranged for her and Barbara to attend the Nuremberg Trials, they prepared themselves to watch justice being served.

For two days in September of 1946, Nancy sat quietly alongside her sister in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice. Pressing the translation headset to her ears, she listened as one damning testimony after the next made clear the unconscionable actions precipitated by the men seated in the nearby dock. There was Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler’s second in command; Rudolf Hess, Deputy Führer; as well as 19 other Nazis, all but three of whom would be found guilty of war crimes, and 12 of whom would be sentenced to death.

“I could very easily see the face of Göring,” Nancy recalls. “I remember watching him, and he would react to some of the stuff being testified to. He was always dressed very neatly. They all actually were.”

Throughout the testimony, Nancy kept a close eye on their facial reactions, a range of emotions displayed from the docket.

During her months in and around Nuremberg, Nancy saw few visual reminders of Nazism. By August of 1946, the once omnipresent swastikas had been wiped clean from the city, including the enormous swastika that had protruded atop the grandstand overlooking Zeppelinfeld, an open-air arena where Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies were once held. Shortly after the war, when the Nazi Party’s former rally grounds were repurposed to serve as parade site for Allied Forces, the Axis’s defeat was undeniable, even to the most committed Nazi sympathizers. Nancy and her siblings visited the grounds often. “To think that had been a field where once Nazis had marched and gathered, and then to see our military there with the flags flying, that was very nice,” Nancy says.

Though one war was over, another was soon to begin, and once more, the Nugent family would find themselves on the frontlines. On July 5, 1950, shortly after celebrating her 15th birthday, Nancy learned that her father, while on a military operation in Korea, had gone missing. The Battle of Osan became the opening salvo for the Korean War — a battle which resulted in a clear victory for the North Korean Army, whose 5,000-infantryman dwarfed America’s 540. Sixty American soldiers lost their lives and 82 were captured, though for three months, Nancy didn’t know into which statistic her father fell. Though relieved to learn that he was still alive, for the next 35 months as a prisoner of war, his status remained in constant question. In all that time, Nancy received only two letters from him. Still, it was enough to give her hope.

Nancy’s high school experience was far different than her classmates. While most students enjoyed the indulgences of school dances and extracurricular activities, Nancy lived in a world apart from her peers. “When I look back, I always felt old,” she says. The circumstances of the world demanded she grow up quickly.

In 1953, Captain Nugent was released, only to find himself court-martialed on 13 counts, including, as his New York Times obituary reads, “making propaganda broadcasts and signing leaflets urging American soldiers to surrender.” It was an astonishing blow for a man many considered a war hero. Seven years after taking her seat at the Nuremberg Trials, 19-year-old Nancy found herself in another courtroom, this one at Fort Sill, and this time, her father was the defendant.

“He always believed he would be acquitted,” Nancy says, and indeed — after arguing that he’d acted to save his fellow prisoners’ lives — he was found not guilty on all charges.

In recent years, as Nancy has had time to reflect on the many historical and personal trials she’s faced, she’s double-downed on a code for living that her father — by way of his own adversity — had a part in instilling within her.

“Be curious, but in a good way,” she tells me. “And don’t isolate yourself. We shut ourselves off and we live in our own little world, and it’s not healthy.”

A better option, she says, is to live one’s life with courage and faith.

To learn from the past, no matter how dark, in the service of a brighter future.

Next Saturday: Patti See reveres her septic guy.


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Changes possible for Foxconn deal

MADISON — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Foxconn Technology Group officials are talking about making changes to the contract signed in 2017 that was based on constructing a larger display screen manufacturing facility than is now proposed.

But neither side is giving details. So how might the deal be changed? And what’s at stake for each side?

Here are five areas to watch as talks continue, based on interviews with people familiar with the Foxconn deal and others like it:

Jobs: It makes sense that Foxconn would want to open up the deal because it appears unlikely to meet the original jobs targets, said Bob O’Brien, president of U.S.-based Display Supply Chain Consultants, which tracks the global flat-panel industry.

Foxconn already came up well short of its first-year target of 260 jobs, costing it $9.5 million in tax credits. This year’s jobs goal has doubled to 520, and the 2020 goal — when Foxconn says production will begin — is nearly 2,000 jobs.

Starting in 2027, it must have at least 10,400 workers to qualify.

It would make sense that Foxconn would want to renegotiate to lower the threshold to qualify, O’Brien said.

The current contract awards Foxconn up to $1.5 billion in tax credits if it hires 13,000 people by 2023 making an average salary of $53,875.

Alan Yeung, Foxconn’s leader for strategy in the U.S., this week suggested there’s no way to predict whether Foxconn will meet the jobs target.

“Who has the crystal ball to predict if 13,000 jobs will be created by the year 2032? Esp in April ‘19,” he tweeted. Yeung later told reporters Foxconn remained committed to hiring 13,000 people.

“We’re not changing the deal ... especially the 13,000 jobs,” he said.

Size of factory: Foxconn could get another $1.35 billion in tax credits if it spends $9 billion on capital investments, primarily building construction and the purchasing of machinery and equipment.

The original contract has Foxconn building what’s called a Generation 10.5 facility. But Foxconn now plans to build a Generation 6 plant, which will make smaller display screens for cellphones and other devices.

Opponents have said that wording referring to a Generation 10.5 plant puts the entire contract in jeopardy if Foxconn builds a different-sized factory.

But Evers, in an interview, discounted that concern.

“I think that we’re past that point and I don’t think anybody would have ever called them out and say we’re going to negate this deal because of that,” Evers said.

Level of credits: While Foxconn may want to lower minimum job-creation numbers to get credits, the state may want to make the benefits less generous.

The credits for job creation and capital investment are much richer than for most economic development projects, a point that critics repeatedly point to as a fault with the contract.

Foxconn is currently eligible for a 15 percent capital investment credit for expenditures on land and buildings, more than the typical 10 percent. It’s eligible for a 17 percent credit on wages, more than double the usual 7 percent.

Wisconsin went with the larger incentive payments because of the enormous promised scale of the project, which was projected to have massive ripple effects across the state’s economy. President Donald Trump heralded it as the “eighth wonder of the world” and said it was a sign of a resurgence in American manufacturing.

But with the scale of the project reduced, and hiring numbers in question, there will be pressure on the state to lower its commitment.

Changes in leadership: The project has been in flux almost from the moment it began. The election of Foxconn critic Evers as governor, followed by the announcement earlier this month that Foxconn CEO Terry Gou plans to run for president of Taiwan, has added uncertainty.

Gou was personally involved in the Wisconsin deal, traveling to the state multiple times to negotiate with then-Gov. Scott Walker and his administration and meet with Trump.

There are more changes to come. In September, Evers will be able to appoint a new leader to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which wrote the contract.

New requirements: Renegotiating the contract would give Evers a chance to insert new environmental safeguards, but those would come at a cost that Foxconn would surely want to mitigate elsewhere. Evers could also attempt to put in place new requirements forcing Foxconn to do business with Wisconsin companies and hire workers from the state. The state may also want to include protections for local communities, which have already spent about $190 million on the project, O’Brien said.

“To me it’s a partnership and we’re going to be working together to solve it,” Evers said. “I suppose at some point in time we might not agree and then it becomes somewhat of a negotiation. But I truly believe that the changes that are made will be reasonable to all sides. Of course, you go in knowing it might not be.”