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Regis grad forges ahead in tough industry
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EAU CLAIRE — Professional actress Colleen McDonnell has found success on both sides of the camera in a challenging — and highly competitive — industry.

The 1985 Eau Claire Regis graduate found early success on the stage and in 2011 made her network television debut in an episode of “Criminal Minds” shortly before landing a spot on the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless.”

McDonnell, who resides in Santa Clarita, Calif., a northern suburb of Los Angeles, said everyone on the “Criminal Minds” set was “very kind” and that the experience proved valuable when a scene of hers was cut due to time constraints.

“It was a highly emotional scene in which I was running through police tape to get to my family with the lead characters holding me back,” she said. “After the scene was shot, the head writer on the show came over and thanked me for my performance.

“So it was terribly disappointing that the scene was cut, but a great learning lesson for me about this business. You must let go of what you can’t control.”

More recently, McDonnell played the recurring character of Maya on the TV show “Red Ruby,” a supernatural teen drama. Seven episodes ran in 2019 but production was then put on hold because of COVID-19.

“’Red Ruby’ was pure fun. How can you not love working with vampires?” McDonnell said. “I’m not sure if they will need me in Season 2, but I loved every minute of working on it.”

The family business

McDonnell’s father, William, was a successful stage actor and is a retired theater professor from UW-Eau Claire.

“He and the other faculty members directed some incredible productions that had a lasting effect on me,” Colleen said. “They were magical. I was very fortunate to have two parents who constantly exposed my siblings and me to the arts.”

McDonnell graduated from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in theater and as a senior performed in the school’s production of “Blue Collar Blues” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Her favorite roles, however, came later in stage productions in Tampa, Fla. — “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The World of Jacques Brel.”

McDonnell described the former as a “a very intense play; a dream role” and said the singing required of the latter was a challenge.

“I had to reach into a raw, visceral place in both productions,” she said.

Hometown recollections

Fond memories of Eau Claire abound for McDonnell.

“I love Eau Claire, and I’m so happy whenever I can go back,” she said. “I loved Carson Park, especially when I was a Girl Scout going to day camp there every summer. My mom was our Girl Scout leader, and we had so much fun.

“I used to twirl the baton in the annual Fourth of July parade, and we had baton recitals at Owen Park.”

At Regis, she competed in forensics under the tutelage of Ella Shaw and went to state in solo acting and poetry reading. McDonnell also performed in high school musicals and on the pom-pom squad.

“Regis was home to the En Avant Dance Studio — with the luminous Mary Liz Gilbert — when I started high school, so I had the ability to take dance with her instead of P.E., which was great,” she said. “I’m much better at dance than volleyball.”

Shaw returned to Eau Claire after retiring from 35 years of teaching high school English, the last 27 in Durand following six years at Regis.

“She was an intelligent student who was very dedicated to the performing arts,” Shaw said of McDonnell. “When Colleen was performing in forensics, she had a way of capturing the room and knew how to use facial expressions and gestures to add to her compelling performances.”

Shaw, who directed McDonnell in a number of shows, lauded her performances as Cha-Cha DiGregorio in “Grease” and as a lead in “Godspell.” The latter performance in particular stands out for Shaw.

“Directing that show was one of the best memories I have from teaching high school,” she said. “Colleen very much connected with her leading character in the troupe.

“I can still remember her slamming the auditorium door as she entered at the point of betrayal, making the audience gasp, and how she carried herself so strongly to the stage, completely in character.”

Current interests

Today, McDonnell also works as a casting associate in commercials. A year ago, she traveled to Eau Claire to see family while working on casting in Winona, Minn., for a Super Bowl commercial featuring Winona Ryder.

When downtime allows, she spends time with her husband watching films, reading books and flying kites. McDonnell also rescued two “precious kitties” and has been volunteering with the Linda Blair Worldheart Foundation for six years.

“It feeds my soul to work with the the dogs there,” McDonnell said, “and Linda is tireless in her work — she’s very inspiring.”

Yet acting remains a passion as well.

“Colleen has always had a spark about her that has set her apart,” Shaw said. “Not many students decide to follow that career path, but she was very determined.

“So, is it a surprise that she has been able to make her way in the entertainment industry? Not at all.”

For others interested in taking on the challenge, McDonnell said focus and perseverance are critical as is “finding great teachers and a supportive environment like I had at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.”

“But you also have to be true to yourself,” she said. “There’s a famous quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, ‘Be yourself; everybody else is already taken,’ which is true — we are all unique.

“You have to take a lot of rejection as an actor, but you must be able to let it go and continue to move forward. Be kind to yourself, continue learning and trust your instincts.”


Another new plan, but will Foxconn follow through this time?

MADISON (AP) — Foxconn Technology Group and electric car company Fisker say their collaboration to build electric cars will “revolutionize the automotive industry.”

They compared their work to the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton. And hinted they could even manufacture the cars here in Wisconsin.

The partnership announcement is the latest for the Taiwanese mega-manufacturer. It follows a string of high-profile announcements that have been abandoned by the company or that have severely underperformed the company’s promises.

There were the coffee kiosks, which promised “a cutting-edge, cloud-based, robotic retail platform” for caffeine sales. There were the ventilators that were going to be produced in Wisconsin to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both projects ended soon after they were announced.

With Fisker, Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Young-way Liu says global leaders in innovation are joining forces. But critics who have followed the company are skeptical.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, is anticipating the deal to make electric cars won’t go very far, either.

“From the beginning the lack of transparency, the lack of honesty and the lack of accountability from Foxconn has really plagued the project and investment,” Hintz told WPR. “It’s hard to take them seriously, even if there is a credible announcement.”

Hintz said the company’s Wisconsin operations have appeared to be virtually nonexistent for nearly four years, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

“Time after time you have a company that seems to be trying to buy time in a state that has been waiting almost four years for something to be true, and they string people along by announcing the next best thing, but I don’t know how anyone can believe them at this point,” he said.

Along with dead-end partnerships, the one-time promise of manufacturing the latest high-tech LCD monitors in a “Generation 10.5” facility in Mount Pleasant is at a standstill.

Roughly 2,500 acres in Mount Pleasant remain in a state of construction, marked with unfinished buildings — land that was once people’s homes, before they were forced out to make way for the company.

The original $3 billion contract between Foxconn and the state is being renegotiated. The state has denied Foxconn any consideration of tax credits because there’s no activity in Mount Pleasant resembling any of the detailed production included in the contract with the state, said Hintz, who is a board member of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., or WEDC.

The tech giant’s arrival in 2017 brought hope for more than just a massive manufacturing campus in southeastern Wisconsin. The worldwide company’s arrival brought dreams for new technologies, new educational opportunities and the possibility that the state would be put on the international stage — all promises made by Foxconn.

Instead, for many, Foxconn’s failings have been a major disappointment.

Promises

Here’s a look at what Foxconn promised Wisconsin — and where those promises stand today.

In July 2019, Foxconn purchased a nondescript building in downtown Milwaukee and announced it would become the company’s North American headquarters. Soon, Foxconn would hire 500 employees to work on research and development, they promised. There was also talk of future expansion at the site.

A small sign was erected, but few Foxconn employees ever worked at the building.

Jeff Fleming, spokesman for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development, said no one from his department has heard from the company in at least a year.

Downtown Milwaukee city council member Robert Bauman said the last time he talked to anyone connected to Foxconn was about two-and-a-half years ago when he spoke to Alan Yeung, the company’s director of U.S. Strategic Initiatives.

“He assured me this was going to be a huge job generator and Milwaukee was going to be the epicenter of their business operation,” Bauman said. “I mean, we were skeptical. None of it really made sense, but you know, these were the plans they were making. They obviously were a very large employer. Maybe they knew something we didn’t. Well it turns out, they didn’t.”

Foxconn still owns the building and leases out the space. Its sign remains.

Foxconn representatives did not respond to request for comment on the future of the building.

In addition to the Milwaukee headquarters, Foxconn announced in 2018 and 2019 it would open so-called “innovation centers” in Green Bay, Eau Claire, Racine and Madison. Each of the centers were to employ 100 to 200 people in high-tech and research and development jobs, the company said.

Like in Milwaukee, Foxconn executives purchased buildings in each of the cities, but never moved forward with plans. Foxconn did not respond to request for comment on the innovation centers.

Kevin Vonck was the development director for the city of Green Bay until August 2020 when he took a job in Richmond, Virginia. He worked closely with Foxconn on plans for the innovation center when it was first announced in June 2018, until he stopped hearing from the company in early 2020.

Vonck said he knew a 14,000-square-foot project in Green Bay wasn’t going to be high on the list of priorities for a worldwide company, but early on he said there was momentum for the project.

“Then they just seemed to slow down,” Vonck said. “The meetings just became fewer and far between, they had some staff turnover and Green Bay just didn’t seem like it was their top priority.”

Eau Claire project

The same has been true in Racine, Madison and Eau Claire, where representatives say they haven’t been in contact with Foxconn about the centers since the end of 2019.

“We were told at some point that they need to focus on meeting their obligations and the build-out of the campus in Mount Pleasant before the innovation centers,” said Shannon Powell, spokesperson for the city of Racine.

But that isn’t a good enough answer for Matthew Jewell, an engineering professor at UW-Eau Claire.

Jewell has been interested in the innovation centers since they were first announced as a potential place for his students to work. Foxconn planned to occupy the first floor of Haymarket Landing, a residence hall with private business space in downtown Eau Claire.

“This space is all glass enclosed on three sides, and it essentially hasn’t changed at all — bare concrete floor, bare walls, no discernable development that we can tell,” Jewell said.

Jewell said as a resident of Eau Claire, he was excited because the innovation centers were pitched as a transformational project that would bring good-paying jobs to the city.

“Certainly, as a faculty member at UW-Eau Claire, we’re looking for opportunities for students, and we were excited to get our students plugged into that, and of course that hasn’t been done,” he added.

At this point, no tax incentives have been provided to Foxconn for the innovation centers, and the company has reportedly been paying taxes on the buildings in all four cities.

Madison

In August 2018, Foxconn and its chairman and founder, Terry Gou, announced plans to invest $100 million in engineering and innovation research at the UW-Madison.

At the time, Gou said the agreement would establish the Foxconn Institute for Research in Science and Technology (FIRST), which would have its main location at the Wisconn Valley Science & Technology Park near Racine and would also have an off-campus presence in Madison.

Since the 2018 announcement, the research center and off-campus location have not been established.

“At Foxconn, we see our role as not only being a major investor in Wisconsin, but also a long-term partner to the local community,” Gou said in 2018. “This includes promoting a vibrant environment that nurtures and enables Wisconsin’s talented workforce, allowing them to tap the immense opportunities that Wisconn Valley has to offer.”

In a statement to WPR, UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas said, “A $700,000 sponsored research project in the College of Engineering represents Foxconn’s investment at the university, to date.”

The $700,000 is part of the $100 million promise — less than 1 percent. Lukas declined to provide further details about the project.

Lucas said the university will “continue to engage in discussions with corporations, including Foxconn, interested in sponsored research or other educational partnerships.”

Lucas referred all other questions to Foxconn, which did not respond to requests for comment.


144 cities could lose status as metro areas

Bye-bye, Bismarck. So long, Sheboygan.

Those cities in North Dakota and Wisconsin, respectively, are two of 144 that the federal government is proposing to downgrade from the metropolitan statistical area designation, and it could be more than just a matter of semantics. Officials in some of the affected cities worry that the change could have adverse implications for federal funding and economic development.

Under the new proposal, a metro area would have to have at least 100,000 people in its core city to count as an MSA, double the 50,000-person threshold that has been in place for the past 70 years. Cities formerly designated as metros with core populations between 50,000 and 100,000 people, like Bismarck and Sheboygan, would be changed to “micropolitan” statistical areas instead.

A committee of representatives from federal statistical agencies recently made the recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget, saying it’s purely for statistical purposes and not to be used for funding formulas. As a practical matter, however, that is how it’s often used.

Several housing, transportation and Medicare reimbursement programs are tied to communities being metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, so the designation change concerns some city officials.

In Corvallis, Oregon, the state designates certain funding sources to metropolitan statistical areas and any change to the city’s status could create a ripple effect, particularly when it comes to transportation funding, said Patrick Rollens, a spokesman for the city that is home to Oregon State University.

“I won’t lie. We would be dismayed to see our MSA designation go away. We aren’t a suburb of any other, larger city in the area, so this is very much part of our community’s identity,” Rollens said in an email. “Losing the designation would also have potentially adverse impacts on recruitment for local businesses, as well as Oregon State University.”

If the proposal is approved, it could be the first step toward federal programs adjusting their population thresholds when it comes to distributing money to communities, leading to funding losses for the former metro areas, said Ben Ehreth, community development director for Bismarck.

“It won’t change any formulas ... but we see this as a first step leading down that path,” Ehreth said. “We anticipate that this might be that first domino to drop.”

Rural communities are concerned that more micropolitan areas would increase competition for federal funding targeting rural areas. The change would downgrade more than a third of the current 392 MSAs.

Changes

Statisticians say the change in designations has been a long time coming, given that the U.S. population has more than doubled since 1950. Back then, about half of U.S. residents lived in metros; now, 86% do.

“Back in the 1950s, the population it took to create a metro area is different than it would be to create a metro area in 2020,” said Rob Santos, president of the American Statistical Association.

Nancy Potok, a former chief statistician of the Office of Management and Budget who helped develop the new recommendations, acknowledged that officials in some cities will be upset with the changes because they believe it could hurt efforts to lure jobs or companies to their communities.

“There are winners and losers when you change these designations,” Potok said. “A typical complaint comes from economic development when you are trying to attract investments. You want to say you are part of a dynamic MSA. There’s a perception associated with it. If your area gets dumped out of an MSA, then you feel disadvantaged.”

Officials in some cities said they needed to research the impact of the change. Others were surprised to find their metro was on the list in the first place.

“Perhaps they made a mistake,” Brian Wheeler, director of communications for the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, said in an email.

While the city of Cape Girardeau, which is on the list, has a resident population north of 40,000 people, as a regional hub for southeastern Missouri, it can have a daytime population of more than 100,000 people, said Alex McElroy, executive director of the Southeast Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“It kind of seems misleading,” McElroy said of the designation change.

Letter of protest

In a letter to the federal budget office, the mayor of Opelika, Alabama, urged that the proposal be dropped.

“The risk to vital services within our community, our state and the millions of impacted Americans across this country far outweigh any limited statistical value that might be gained from this proposal,” Mayor Gary Fuller said.

In a separate proposal, the U.S. Census Bureau is considering a change to the definition of an urban area. The proposal made public last month would use housing instead of people for distinguishing urban from rural. An area will be considered urban if it has 385 housing units per square mile, roughly the equivalent of 1,000 people per square mile, under the new proposal. The current standard is 500 people per square mile.

The Census Bureau says the changes are needed to comply with new privacy requirements that aim to prevent people from being identified through publicly released data and it offers a more direct measure of density.

Some demographers aren’t sold on the idea of changing the definition of a metro area.

“It seems like everything is ad hoc, rather than having been determined by serious research,” said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire. “The definitions have been relatively stable since 1950. All of the sudden, they change these, and at least in my mind, there isn’t a compelling research-based process that has driven this decision.”

In Corvallis, Rollens joked that he was intrigued by the possibility of the city becoming a micropolitan area, suggesting the community could benefit from thinking small.

“We enjoy our small-batch craft beers and locally grown produce here in Corvallis, so I have no doubt that we would find a creative way to market our region if we ended up with a ‘micropolitan’ designation,” Rollens said.


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