You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

The former Behind the Brewery Gallery at 1026 Front St. is demolished Monday.

top story
Western Technical College, city of La Crosse building for the future

When Connor Renk and Tim Birnbaum started working at 721 Charles St., it was just an empty cement slab.

The 17-year-olds, students in Western Technical College’s Youth Build program, were among those working Monday to build a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on the city-owned lot as part of a partnership between the college and city of La Crosse — a partnership made possible by community development block grants.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

A single-family home at 721 Charles St. is being built on an elevated foundation and without a basement, removing the requirement for future owners to purchase flood insurance. The house is being built for the city by students in the Youth Build program at Western Technical College.

“If you look on Google Maps, you can actually see the old house that was here. It’s scary compared to what we have now,” Birnbaum said.

They were up bright and early to cross-brace the beams atop the home to get it ready for the installation of plywood and other roof materials along with their teacher, construction trainer Jason Mather.

The program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, brings together students who are underprivileged or at risk of not graduating high school to get some life skills and improve their outlook. At the start of the program, which has a morning and an afternoon session each weekday, they are in the classroom for two days a week and on the site two days a week, with the fifth day devoted to guest speakers and other learning opportunities. As time goes by, they spend more time on the site.

Mather teaches them the basics of how to construct a home, as well as the importance of being on time, teamwork and basic life skills.

“Usually at 8:30 a.m., he’s like, ‘Let’s go,’” Renk said. “I love that, honestly.”

A self-confessed procrastinator, Renk faced some challenges last year as he was going into his senior year at Central High School.

“I didn’t care in high school, so I wasn’t going to graduate in 2018, and I really, really wanted to,” Renk said.

His principal suggested he look into Youth Build. While he didn’t quite make it to graduate in May, his goal is to be ready by the end of the fall semester through Western’s adult high school equivalent degree program.

It helps that home-building is his dream job, he said.

“This is just phenomenal to me. It’s a dream come true … This is the perfect line-up for me, for my career,” Renk said.

While Birnbaum doesn’t plan to go the construction route after high school — he plans to study mortuary sciences — he still appreciates the education and other opportunities the program provides.

“I do this because I learn endurance, how to do hard labor. There’s a lot of team-work here, and even if I’m not going into construction, knowing something about the trade when I own my own house is definitely going to be useful,” Birnbaum said.

In addition to a stipend, participants get two college credits and the opportunity to receive either a high school equivalent diploma or general education diploma, plus a Home Builders Institute pre-apprenticeship certificate training certificate, which Mathers said is something employers like to see.

They also receive basic first aid training — including defibrillator and CPR certification — and get OSHA 10 certified.

“They can handle ladders safely, power tools safely. They can assess safety. They have a pretty good idea of what’s a bad idea,” Mather said.

The reasons Mather teaches the program are complicated, he said, but mostly it boils down to an appreciation of what his students are going through.

“We have a lot in common. I remember what it’s like to be young and to struggle a little bit,” Mather said.

The city of La Crosse provides the site and materials and hires subcontractors to provide the plumbing, electrical, and heating and air conditioning work.

“It’s an outstanding opportunity for us to have a structure to build at all. We wouldn’t have a program without it,” Mather said.

The funds to pay for the construction come from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development community development block grants. The grants, which are administered by a city committee, make programs like this one possible for the city, said community development planner Caroline Gregerson.

“We pay for everything except for the labor,” said Gregerson.

While the partnership with Western saves the city labor costs, efforts to keep the homes high-quality and also affordable to moderate-income families and individuals would offset those savings without the federal program’s help.

The primary objectives for the city are increasing the amount of affordable housing available, revitalizing the neighborhood and encouraging owner-occupancy. The idea is to replace old, run-down homes with new homes, which each have deed restrictions requiring them to be owner-occupied.

“That’s getting people out of the floodplain and getting dilapidated houses torn down,” Gregerson said.

The program’s willingness to take on projects in the floodplain, which can be tough because of additional restrictions and complications, is another bonus, she said. After the home is complete, the city will submit a letter of map revision to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will officially remove it from the floodplain and save the new owner from the need to purchase flood insurance.

The Youth Build program is similar to another partnership between Western and the city, the Wood Tech program, which gives adult college students the chance to earn a technical diploma in about a year.

The Wood Tech program builds two houses per year, start to finish, on lots purchased by the city with community development block grants. The program, which started in the 1990s, offers a unique opportunity for both Western’s students and the city.

“Most other programs do simulations. We do the real thing,” instructor Dave Hahn said.

More than the technical skills, students learn things you can’t teach in a classroom, Hahn said, like how to navigate a job site, show up on time and work hard all day out in the elements.

“I run these job sites the same way I did before I became an instructor,” Hahn said.

The city purchases run-down homes, tears them down and provides the materials for Western to use. After they’re built, the city puts them up for sale for around $150,000 to $160,000, depending on the home, and offers a program to provide a second mortgage for a down payment for those who qualify.

“That’s how we make it affordable,” Gregerson said.

Both programs are made possible by federal community development block grants.

“People think we’re making a profit, but because it involves an acquisition and demolition component and we put really high-quality materials in our project, we require grant funds to actually make the partnerships work,” she said.

The city is celebrating its 44th year of community development block grant programs this week, starting with a small business mixer Tuesday and including an open house Wednesday at a home built by Central High School students among other events.

Country Boom adds Cam to festival lineup

The Country Boom music festival has added another artist to the lineup for the event’s debut, which will be July 13-14 at Maple Grove Venues, formerly the Maple Grove Country Club, near West Salem.

Cam, a singer/songwriter who grew up in California as Camaron Ochs, has been added to the Saturday night lineup. In 2015, Cam released her major label debut, an EP called “Welcome to Cam Country” that yielded a breakout single, “Burning House.” The song earned her a Grammy Award nomination for best country solo performance as well as country music award nominations for song, video and vocalist of the year.

She has released two albums, 2010’s “Heartforward” as Camararon Ochs and “Untamed,” which also includes “Burning House” and climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard country albums chart in 2016. She has opened for George Strait, Dierks Bentley, Dan + Shay, Brad Paisley and Martina McBride.

Cam is one of only two female artists in the Country Boom lineup, with the other, Faren Rachels, also performing on Saturday. Other major artists include Randy Houser, Aaron Lewis, Tyler Farr, Riley Green and Ben Johnson on Friday, and Chase Rice, Phil Vassar, Michael Tyler, Josh Phillips and Jake Rose on Saturday.

Regional bands scheduled to perform include the Pat Watters Band, Burnin’ Whiskey, Blue Collar 40, County Line Drive and Diesel Drive.

For more information about the festival or to buy tickets and reserve camping spots, visit

Country Boom artists

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Bangor High School senior Garrett Krueger competes in the Division 3 shot put at last season's WIAA state track and field meet on the campus of UW-La Crosse. Krueger is building big numbers in the throws, and the Cardinals are showing that they can score a lot of points.

top story
Black River Falls construction company one of 28 chosen for first round of Foxconn project

Hoffman Construction Co. of Black River Falls is one of 28 subcontractors chosen for site development of a the Foxconn electronics plant in southeastern Wisconsin.

The contract award was announced Monday by M+W Gilbane, a joint venture of two firms handling construction management for the $5 billion project. Gov. Scott Walker made a stop in Black River Falls Monday to make his own announcement.

Previously awarded a $12.7 million contract from the state Department of Transportation to build a new frontage road along Interstate 94 to handle traffic at the campus, Hoffman will handle excavation, stormwater management and erosion control, while preparing the 1,000-acre site for a 20-million square-foot factory.

The 91-year-old family business is the only western Wisconsin subcontractor chosen for the first round of work.

The value of the Hoffman contract was not disclosed, but the project managers say the first round of contracts are worth a total of about $100 million.

A Foxconn spokesman said Hoffman had about 30 pieces of equipment on site and would begin moving dirt Monday. They are planning to have 200 pieces of equipment at the site by the end of May, and excavation work will continue through 2019.

The state Legislature last year approved about $3 billion in tax breaks to lure the Taiwanese manufacturer, although the total cost to taxpayers is expected to be closer to $4.5 billion, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

As part of the deal, Foxconn committed to awarding 60 percent of its construction contracts to Wisconsin-based businesses, and 10 percent to those owned by women, people of color and veterans, though Ware said there is no financial incentive to hitting those targets.

The left-wing organization One Wisconsin Now claimed Monday that owners and families behind four of the 28 companies awarded Foxconn contracts have given at least $359,000 to Walker’s campaign.

Hoffman Construction owner James Hoffman and four employees have donated $9,459 to Walker’s campaign since 2010, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Hoffman was openly critical of Walker and Republican lawmakers in 2015 over right-to-work legislation.

Note: This story has been updated to correct the amount of campaign contributions from Hoffman Construction owners and employees. 

Menards pitchman Ray Szmanda dies at 91

Ray Szmanda worked in television in northern Wisconsin, was the father of seven children, owned a radio broadcasting school in Wausau and even had a role in the “Alpha Incident,” a science fiction movie released in 1978 about a microorganism from Mars that is brought to Earth by a space probe and terrorizes passengers in a railroad office.

But for most, Szmanda will be remembered as the “Menards Guy.”

For over two decades, beginning in 1976, Szmanda was a regular presence on television as he touted the latest deals on lumber, cordless drills, patio furniture, grills, paint, mulch and hundreds of other products sold by the Eau Claire-based hardware store giant.

Szmanda, of Antigo, died Sunday. He was 91, according to a Facebook post by his son, Charles Szmanda. Funeral arrangements are pending with Bradley Funeral Home in Antigo.

A blue shirt or sweater, white hair, big grin and large, black-rimmed glasses made Szmanda one of the most recognizable people on television in the Midwest and to this day his likeness is still used in advertising images for Menards. The company was founded in 1958 and Szmanda was the face of its stores as the retailer mushroomed into one of the largest home improvement store chains in the country with over 300 locations in 14 states. Forbes estimates that in 2017, the company had annual sales of $9.5 billion.

“His friendly, fun-loving personality and enthusiasm has made a lasting impression on Menards and its customers,” the company wrote in Szmanda’s biography on its website.

According to Szmanda’s website,, he graduated from the American Institute of the Air in Minnesota and took writing classes from UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison. From 1951 to 1958 he worked in radio and television and in 1969 founded Trans American School of Broadcasting in downtown Wausau. He sold the school in 1986, and its new owner moved the school to Madison in 1988, where it no longer offers radio broadcasting. Instead, its programs include media business, sound recording, video production and medical billing.

In a 1998 profile in the Wisconsin State Journal, Szmanda said he was often approached in restaurants and asked for autographs, which he usually signed. He called himself an “average do-it-yourselfer” but admitted he was “pretty good” with a caulk gun. When Menards started advertising on television, it wanted someone similar to Pat Summerall, a former professional football player who turned to broadcasting and ultimately became a spokesman for True Value Hardware.

“I have a genuine enthusiasm for everything I do,” Szmanda told the State Journal. “I don’t bother with things I can’t feel positive about. I’m just a real up kind of person.”

Szmanda collected antique cars, did freelance announcing, played the drums and was a HAM radio operator, according to his website.

Szmanda was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 51 years, Maxine, in 2000, and their son, Dr. Raymond “Jack” Szmanda, who was killed in a car crash in 2002.