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Precipitation puts kinks in Coulee Region school schedules  HOMETOWN, PAGE A6

Misty's Dance Unlimited project in Onalaska gets $240,000 state grant

ONALASKA — With the new Misty’s Dance Unlimited building taking shape across the street, dance studio owner Misty Lown was joined by several dozen others in celebrating one of the things that made the new $3 million facility possible: a $240,000 state grant.

The 21,190-square-foot building, scheduled to open on June 15, will be the third home for Misty’s Dance Unlimited, all three of them in Onalaska. For her third building, Lown wrote a grant application that the city of Onalaska agreed to be part of, seeking funding help from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s Community Development Investment Grant program.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Misty Lown of Misty’s Dance Unlimited takes community members Monday on a tour of her new $3 million International Performing Arts Campus under construction directly across the street from her current location at 1220 Oak Forest Drive in Onalaska. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. announced Monday it is supporting the project with a $240,000 grant.

“I want to thank the city of Onalaska for three times going to the rodeo with me and believing this is possible,” Lown said during a press conference Monday morning at her existing studio. “Although we were courted by many states, I am here to say that I am North Side raised, Onalaska invested and Wisconsin proud.”

Unlike some WEDC grants, the CDIG program does not tie funding to creating a certain number of jobs. Rather than job creation, the primary aim is to enhance communities and provide an economic splash that will have ripple effects on other community businesses. With that goal in mind, Misty’s Dance Unlimited was a good fit for the grant.

On top of providing the space to expand MDU enrollment from the current 700 students to 1,000, the new MDU International Performing Arts Campus also will bring a lot of visitors to town for training through Lown’s More Than Just Great Dance. Lown started the company six years ago to help other dance studios run their businesses based on three primary pieces: people, profits and positive programs.

“We firmly believe in a triple bottom line, and we wanted to teach other studio owners how to run businesses in that fashion,” said Lown, who has spent much time on the road to conduct training for the 220 studios affiliated with More Than Just Great Dance, studios that serve about 75,000 students each week.

Lown will still travel for some training sessions, but most will now be done at the new Onalaska campus, with the first one planned just a week after the building opens. “We are bringing those studio owners, managers and teachers here to Onalaska to learn how to run their businesses in a way that would honor the people they work with, the communities they serve and the children in their classrooms,” Lown said.

The visitors coming to the International Performing Arts Campus will be good for the community, said Onalaska City Administrator Eric Rindfleisch. “This project will substantially enhance our redevelopment efforts of our downtown area with the influx of new visitors who may wish to enjoy our new and existing dining, entertainment retail and recreational opportunities,” he said.

The new building, which as of last week is now buttoned up against the elements, will house Misty’s Dance Unlimited, Ballet La Crosse, Everything Dance (a dancewear retail store) and a 1,500-square-foot cafe with a drive-thru window. There also will be space for other performance arts training programs, such as voice lessons or instrumental music classes.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

The new Misty’s Dance Unlimited $3 million International Performing Arts Campus is under construction across the street from the dance studio's current location at 1220 Oak Forest Drive in Onalaska.  

It also will include a reception area, four private offices, a recording studio/private office for training, a conference room, public gathering spaces, a birthday party zone, outdoor seating, a children’s play area and seven instructional rooms — three of which convert to one large group training and performance area, including a stage.

The performance area, which has space for about 300 spectators, has potential as an arts performance space beyond dance, hosting events such as theater productions, music recitals and concerts.

La Crosse County Board Chair Tara Johnson said the project is part of $3 billion in development in the county over the past seven years, but she was just as excited about the community cultural enhancement that will come from Lown’s project.

“What I think we are celebrating most today is that this is a cultural center. I think that we sometimes shortchange the impact that the arts and culture have not just on economic development, not just communities, but our lives,” Johnson said, adding a quotation from Robert Lynch of Americans for the Arts: ““The arts inspire us, soothe us, provoke us and connect us, but they also create jobs and contribute to the economy.”

“What I think we are celebrating most today is that this is a cultural center. I think that we sometimes shortchange the impact that the arts and culture have not just on economic development, not just communities, but our lives.” Tara Johnson, La Crosse County Board chair

The 21,190-square-foot building, scheduled to open on June 15, will be the third home for Misty’s Dance Unlimited, all three of them in Onalaska.

Poll shows skepticism over Foxconn cost, wide open primaries

MADISON — Wisconsin voters, especially those outside of the Milwaukee area, are skeptical the Foxconn Technology Group project is worth the $3 billion in state incentives promised to the Taiwanese company if it meets employment and investment targets, a poll released Monday shows.

That could be trouble for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has touted the potentially $10 billion project 30 miles south of Milwaukee as transformational for the state as he runs for re-election this year. Even so, the Marquette University Law School poll found Walker’s approval rating to be holding steady from nine months ago, just before the Foxconn deal was announced.

The poll also found that the nine top-tier Democrats running against Walker haven’t made much of an impression on voters five months before the Aug. 14 primary. A majority of respondents said they didn’t have enough information yet about each of the nine to form an opinion, or they had no opinion.

State Superintendent Tony Evers was the best known, but still 66 percent hadn’t heard enough to have an opinion. Former state Rep. Kelda Roys was the most unknown, with 92 percent saying they didn’t have an opinion.

The same was true for the two Republicans running in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin. More than 80 percent didn’t know enough to have an opinion of Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson or state Sen. Leah Vukmir. Baldwin’s approval rating was 37 percent, steady from nine months ago, while her disapproval was 39 percent.

Baldwin’s numbers didn’t move much even though $3.1 million has been spent against her in television ads by conservative groups so far. And Nicholson didn’t seem to benefit much from more than $3.1 million that’s been spent on ads meant to increase his name ID across the state.

In the governor’s race, Walker’s approval rating was 47 percent, the same as his disapproval. His approval rating is the same now as it was in March 2014, when he was heading into his first re-election.

With the election so far away, and a wide majority of voters saying they don’t know enough about the candidates running against Walker and Baldwin, “it’s premature to be concerned” about anything the numbers show, said pollster Charles Franklin.

However, Franklin emphasized the Foxconn findings, saying they show a continued divide between people in more rural parts of the state and those in the urban center around Milwaukee most likely to benefit from the project.

The poll found that statewide 49 percent of respondents think the $3 billion in state incentives is more than the project is worth, while 38 percent say Foxconn will be worth the cost.

While a majority of voters statewide said they thought the plant would substantially improve the economy of the greater Milwaukee area, only 25 percent statewide said they thought businesses where they live would directly benefit from the plant.

The poll surveyed 800 registered voters between Feb. 25 and Thursday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

On other topics, the poll found:

  • Support for tighter gun control laws remained high after the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida that left 17 dead. Similar to past polls, 81 percent support background checks on private gun sales, including at gun shows, and 56 percent support a ban on assault-style weapons. However, 43 percent said they thought new gun control laws would have no effect on reducing mass shootings. Twelve percent said new laws would reduce mass shootings a great deal, while 22 percent said the reduction would be moderate.
  • President Donald Trump’s approval rating was 43 percent with 50 percent disapproving. That’s little changed from June when it was 41-51. There’s a sharp partisan divide, with 89 percent of Republicans approving of Trump’s performance and 89 percent of Democrats disapproving.
  • More than 75 percent of respondents were unable to rate Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Rebecca Dallet, a Milwaukee County judge, and Michael Screnock, a Sauk County judge.
  • 71 percent support a path for citizenship for immigrants living in the United States illegally and 86 percent said children of immigrants here illegally should be able to stay and apply for citizenship.

Homeless offenders create gaps in Wisconsin’s GPS monitoring system

Michael walked out of the Oshkosh Correctional Institution in April 2017 at age 60 with $140 to his name, a record as a sex offender and a GPS monitoring bracelet strapped to his ankle.

Michael, who requested that only his middle name be used to avoid public attention, was convicted of two child sex crimes, the most recent in 2006, for which he spent 10 years in prison. He traveled to Vernon County, where he had committed his most recent sex crime, and stayed in a Westby motel while he searched for permanent housing. His probation officer gave him a few months to find a place.

The housing search ended in failure. Michael, who is disabled and relies on Social Security, was unable to navigate the process with residency restrictions and landlords leery of renting to sex offenders.

His search was further complicated by Wisconsin’s requirement that he reside at least initially in Vernon County, where he was convicted, along with DOC rules of supervision that attempt to prevent serious sex offenders from living too close to one another.

He continued his search, but came up empty handed, and so like many sex offenders, he became homeless, living in a tent at a $10-per-night campground during the summer and early fall of 2017. A couple of times a day, he plugged his GPS monitor into an outlet meant for trailers. He said wearing the bracelet is “shameful, and it does hurt my ankle.”

Ten percent are homeless

DOC data show that of the 1,258 offenders on GPS monitoring in January, 131 had no permanent place to live. This means about one in 10 offenders may not have regular or easy access to an outlet to charge a monitoring device. A DOC spokesman said agents typically allow homeless offenders to charge their bracelets in parole offices.

DOC records show some homeless offenders avoid this logistical challenge by absconding — removing their bracelets or letting them run out of power — which completely defeats the purpose of GPS monitoring.

Michael’s struggle to find housing illustrates a problem that is widespread in Wisconsin communities, where dozens of sex offenders are homeless due in part to ordinances restricting where they can live.

DOC officials have acknowledged that highly restrictive municipal residency ordinances in more than 150 Wisconsin communities such as Green Bay and until recently, Milwaukee, are contributing to the problem, according to emails obtained by the Center under the public records law. These local laws prevent sex offenders from residing too closely to places including parks, schools and day-care centers, leaving virtually nowhere for them to live.

Green Bay’s requirement that offenders live at least 1,500 feet away from schools, parks and day-care centers means offenders are banned from nearly the entire city, although they have the opportunity to appeal in front of a board.

In a recent ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, a judge essentially struck down the village of Pleasant Prairie’s 3,000-foot buffer zone as being too restrictive, saying 90 percent of the village was off-limits to child sex offenders and the remaining land was largely nonresidential.

Some municipalities have pre-empted legal action. Waukesha and New Berlin, for example, reduced child safety zones from 1,500 to 500 feet.

The attorneys in the Pleasant Prairie case, Mark Weinberg and Adele Nicholas, are also representing 11 registered sex offenders in a case that ended the 2,000-foot residency restriction in the city of Milwaukee, where sex offenders, some on GPS monitoring, are homeless.

On Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a $74,400 settlement in that case after the city significantly rewrote its residency requirements.

The plaintiffs in the Milwaukee case are sex offenders who are either homeless or attempting to move. Sylvester Jackson, a 51-year-old homeless offender, stated in an affidavit that he has tried for years to obtain housing but to no success. A diabetic, Jackson often sleeps in a broken-down car.

Another offender, 35-year-old Chris Bills, wanted to move out of the three-bedroom townhouse he shared with seven others, but was unable to find another option due to the residency restrictions and the desire to stay in the area so his autistic son could attend his special school.

Other plaintiffs stated that they investigated each address Milwaukee deemed compliant, but that none of them was available to rent. One such location ended up being the Milwaukee airport.

Months after the plaintiffs’ motion seeking an immediate halt to the law, Milwaukee’s city council in September voted to repeal the city’s sex offender “buffer zone,” doing so without Mayor Tom Barrett’s signature.

The move let sex offenders essentially live anywhere in the city, although it did leave in place a requirement that offenders must return to the county where they committed their offense upon release. The 2015 state law that maintains a 1,500-foot buffer zone for a specific category of offenders deemed sexually violent also remains in effect.

The two attorneys argue that such residency restrictions and “original domicile” clauses, which make it unlawful for a sex offender to live in a city unless he commited his crime there, are unconstitutional and “not rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”

“There’s just no evidence to support the (claim) that these laws are making communities safer, preventing crime or protecting anyone from crime,” Nicholas said. “This law just makes people homeless.”

Federal courts are beginning to agree. In August 2016, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down Michigan’s application of several restrictions for sex offenders on the basis that they violated the Constitution’s ban on retroactive punishment.

The provisions include having sex offenders’ names on a registry, prohibiting sex offenders from living, working or “loitering” within 1,000 feet of a school, and requiring them to notify law enforcement in person when they update personal information.

Michigan’s sex offender registration law “brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction,” wrote Alice Batchelder, one of the judges for the case, adding that “it consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins.”

Batchelder also challenged Michigan’s contention that its sex offender laws deter recidivism. She cited studies that suggest sex offenders are actually less likely to recidivate than other criminals, and that sex offender registries and their accompanying restrictions make it “hard for registrants to get and keep a job, find housing and reintegrate into their communities.”

Batchelder emphasized that Michigan could provide no evidence that the difficulties its sex offender restrictions imposed had any positive outcomes.

GPS, laws add hurdles

In Florida, where prohibitive residency restrictions have led to homelessness among sex offenders, some seek refuge in an isolated community in South Florida called Miracle Village, which is home to more than 100 people, most of them sex offenders.

In Wisconsin, Michael eventually managed to establish a more permanent residence. He found a friend in Kendall in neighboring Monroe County who agreed to let him move into his house. He asked that his photo and location not be disclosed.

Like some other sex offenders, Michael encountered difficulties with GPS monitoring, spending the weekend of Oct. 21 in jail for an unspecified probation violation. He sat in jail throughout the weekend until his probation officer returned to work on Monday.

“I was scared,” Michael said of the arrest. “I didn’t know what happened … And then I started thinking, ‘Well, this is what I’m in for for the rest of my life.’ ”

He later learned his arrest was triggered by a 10-minute visit to his sister’s house in Wilton. Unknown to Michael, a church nearby houses a day-care center, which is one of his “exclusion zones.” His probation officer then created a “safe zone” around his sister’s house, preventing at least one future arrest.

“As far as the GPS goes, I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s overkill. I did 10 years, I’ve got 15 on paper (probation),” he said. “What more do they need? Why is the bracelet necessary?”