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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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Picnic Point plans face controversy
Some object to huge new fire ring, memorial to mom
The current fire ring, which could be revamped to host groups of 80 people.
The current fire ring, which could be revamped to host groups of 80 people.

Here's something you might not know from media coverage of the UW-Madison's plans to remake the tip of Picnic Point: The plans are actually quite controversial.

"There were people who were extremely emotional," says Ron Wallace, co-director of the UW-Madison's creative writing program, of the June 9 campus meeting he attended on the subject. He estimates about half the 50 people there were "vehemently opposed," and was stunned to see a TV news report that did not mention this.

The university wants to combat shoreline erosion and remove invasive species from the tip of this mile-long peninsula, and build a stone stairway to the water's edge. (For a link to a PowerPoint slideshow of preliminary plans, see here)

None of these ideas are controversial. But Wallace and others oppose the UW's plans to replace the current spartan fire ring with a fire circle that can accommodate 80 people. ("It looks more to me like a small amphitheater," he says.)

University officials say Picnic Point is being "loved to death," so it needs protection. But Wallace fears the changes will encourage more and larger groups. "How is that going to keep it from being loved to death?" He rejects claims that the site will help students learn to appreciate nature, suggesting it will more likely be seen as "a great destination for a party."

Sally Bilder, who attended the meeting, read a letter urging against adding any structures to Picnic Point and especially its tip, which she called "the most beautiful, the most sacred and spiritual, the most widely known feature of this special natural preserve."

Gary Brown, the UW-Madison's director of campus planning and landscape architecture, affirms there were "a couple of people who had pretty strong opinions about the project" at the June 9 meeting. And he says the consensus view was that the best of six options presented was the one that's "least intrusive."

The fire ring, he says, will be similar to the Wheeler Ring at the Arboretum and Council Ring at Glenwood Children's Park, both designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen. "Whatever we do, it needs to fit into the natural environment."

There is also contention over the project's funding - a $750,000 gift from the Ebling Charitable Trust. The gift would honor the family matriarch, Elsie Iwen Ebling, a lover of Picnic Point. One idea floated at the meeting, which drew angry response, was memorializing the gift in perpetuity with two large boulders.

Brown says people who give large amounts of money commonly want recognition, but there's been no decision on what form the memorial will take. Still, "Some people don't want any memorial at all."

The project plans will be discussed and refined over the summer with the goal of presenting one or two options for consideration this fall. "Obviously, it's going to be a compromise," says Brown. "There's a lot of emotional opinion about what should be done out there."

TCT turns off profit spigot

The Capital Times Co., for the first time in decades and perhaps ever, is not rewarding its stockholders with a dividend in the current quarter.

"We regret to report that there will not be a quarterly dividend paid this summer," states a letter to stockholders dated June 10 and signed by board chair John Lussier and president/publisher Clayton Frink. "We remain hopeful that we will be able to schedule a dividend in either September or October."

As Isthmus has reported ("Cap Times Empire Toughs It Out," 3/6/09), the Capital Times Co. in 2008 paid out a lower amount in dividends than the year before, breaking a rise in profitability that dates back at least to 1996. Even so, the company paid out $55.25 on each of its 120,000 shares, for a total of $6,630,000.

While that's less than the $61.25 per share in 2007 ($7,350,000), it's nothing to sneeze at. It suggests Capital Newspapers Inc., of which The Capital Times is half-owner and half-beneficiary, managed to make at least $13.2 million in profit in 2008, one of the worst years in the history of the print business.

The suspended dividend means this year's total distributions will likely be lower. According to Lussier and Frink, "total revenues are down 22.6% so far this year," including a 41.6% decline in classified ads. In response, Cap News has put the screws to its workers.

"Our workforce has been reduced, benefits have been trimmed or eliminated, workers have been furloughed temporarily, and executive compensation has been cut sharply," the letter says. "We are focused on understanding the changes in our business and ensuring that the franchise is strong enough to weather the storm...."

School spraying stirs fuss

As Isthmus reported in an online article last Friday, warning signs at Madison schools proclaiming "PESTICIDE APPLICATION: PLEASE KEEP OFF" caused confusion and alarm.

Doug Pearson, the district's director of building services, says what was applied at more than a dozen city schools was not pesticides but herbicides, to kill weeds on sidewalks and along fences. The once-yearly application was done at a time when fewer people were present, and authorized by the school board, as required. But the state classifies herbicides as pesticides and requires use of these signs.

At the playfield by O'Keeffe Elementary last Thursday, the signs prompted one woman to shoo people off the field, exclaiming "Can you believe they've done this?" And Bert Zipperer, a school employee and neighborhood resident, is not consoled by the district's explanation: "Agent Orange was just a herbicide, too."

He used to care, but things have changed

In a recent article, Scott Bauer of the Associated Press dredged up some words spoken by state Rep. Gary Sherman (D-Port Wing) on the floor of the the GOP-controlled Assembly in March 2008, as a legislative session dragged on until 4 a.m.

"This is unprofessional. This is stupid," declared Sherman, in a roiling boil. "What the hell are we doing?"

In an audio clip of this rant, available here as an MP3 (radio talk-show hosts, start your search engines), Sherman also comments that the room is full of people who "aren't in good health anymore and can't think their way out of a paper frickin' bag."

Now the Democrats are in charge, and Sherman serves on the budget-writing committee that's done much of its work in sessions that drag into the early morning, including one that went until 6 a.m. This is done purposely, to shield the committee's actions from public view. (This moved local songsmith Peter Leidy to a hilarious remake of "Behind Closed Doors" on public television's "Here and Now.")

What does Sherman think of this tawdry practice now? Bauer didn't ask, but we did. The inquiry was fielded by an aide, who promised an answer that never arrived. What, really, can the man say? "I'm a frickin' hypocrite"?

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