RHINELANDER - In four years, Rhinelander-based Drs. Foster and Smith (DFS) went from the largest online and catalog seller of pet products in the country to out of business.
It happened on Petco's watch.
The San Diego company finished a deal to buy DFS in 2015.
On Wednesday, it announced it was closing most of its Rhinelander operations and laying off 289 employees.
"For our community, it's a loss, and that's undeniable," said Stacey Johnson, the executive director of the Oneida Co. Economic Development Corporation.
Hundreds of employees got a letter Wednesday telling them they would only have a job through March 10.
"Consumer needs and preferences have continued to shift with technology," Brock Weatherup, a Petco executive, wrote in the letter. "The closure of DFS will enable us to streamline operations and better focus on our core business and customer."
DFS is currently one of the top five employers in Oneida Co., but employees say the "Drs. Foster and Smith" name will not survive on any pet products. The brand didn't even send out a catalog in Fall 2018.
The closure seems like a broken promise by Petco to some.
"For our community, it's not what they thought they were getting," Johnson said.
In 2014, Rhinelander thought it was getting a new owner committed to keeping DFS in town. Founders Race Foster and Marty Smith picked Petco as a buyer with that pledge in mind.
"Marty Smith and I actually talked to many prospective buyers," Foster said at the time. "The one condition we put was, it cannot leave Rhinelander, at least in the foreseeable future."
The sale closed in 2015, but in 2018, Petco laid off two smaller rounds of workers. It started giving hints Wednesday's broad layoff announcement was on the way.
"It's something we knew about, but we didn't know when. It definitely wasn't a surprise," Johnson said of the impending closure.
"[The company] is something that people grew up with. They've been there for 25 years, some of these people. It's a significant loss number-wise, but it's also a loss historically," she said.
Odds of state leaders devising a way to prevent the closure seem slim. According to Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation executive director Mark Hogan met with Maggie Gau, the chief of staff for Gov. Tony Evers, on Thursday. Hogan has also been trying to find a suitable contact with Petco's corporate offices in San Diego to discuss ways to save Rhinelander jobs, without success.
In December, then-Gov. Scott Walker made a deal to keep Kimberly-Clark's Cold Spring facility open in the Fox Valley, saving about 400 jobs. Walker pledged $28 million in tax breaks for the company in exchange. But Swearingen said Petco's mind seems to be set on closing the Rhinelander location.
Johnson's job now shifts to helping workers figure out what's next.
She met Thursday with the state-funded North Central Rapid Response Team. That team will offer pre-layoff workshops to employees, information sessions on resources, and career fairs. Some workers may be eligible for money to help pay for retraining programs, including attending technical colleges.
"We have a blueprint, if you will, for how we deal with situations like that," said Sandy Bishop, the executive director of Nicolet College's Economic and Community Development program.
Bishop noted Nicolet College has helped laid off workers start new careers in the past, like when Twist Drill closed in Rhinelander in the early 2000s and left hundreds jobless.
"Although it's a really difficult situation," Bishop said, "they come out on the other end of this with, sometimes, a whole new skill set, a whole new career direction."
Bishop encourages workers not to rush a decision on their next move.
"Even though it seems like a real short timeframe with the closure being announced, there is time to really look at the opportunities that are available," she said.
Johnson sees boundless career opportunities in Rhinelander for transitioning workers.
"Absolutely, there's opportunity here," she said. "There's a lot of positivity and this is just something the community needs to come together and support."
A current employee of DFS said Petco's severance package for workers seemed "fair and reasonable."
We don't know what will happen with the DFS property yet. It includes acres of warehouses, storage buildings, and offices. Petco owns the complex.
TOMAHAWK - The Tomahawk Fall ride concluded Sunday. The three day motorcycle festival had less attendance than in previous years due to COVI-19, but it did not stop local businesses from enjoying the visitors from all over the country.
Local and small businesses were out in full force trying to make profits for the season with Fall ride concluding the festival season. The town of Tomahawk had less attendees than last year but the hotels had no problem filling their rooms. The owner of the Four Seasons Motel, Andy Wadia, said September is their busiest time of year.
"So many people came from Chicago, Minnesota, Iowa, some from California so it's good," said Wadia. "Good for the business good for the town, you know local business is good for local business you know."
Not only were there visitors from all over the country but business vendors like Eli Villarreal, Owner of Marie's Famous Headbands drove all the way from Corpus Christi, Texas to keep his business alive through the pandemic.
"We didn't hit our numbers like we did last year," said Villarreal. "This year we're probably like 40 percent down, but like I said with everything being cancelled across the US we'll take it right now. I mean we need it, that's our bread and butter."
Tomahawk businesses love when fall ride comes for the three day weekend as it is the last push for businesses to make their final profits before the off season takes over and the influx of tourism grinds to a halt.
FLORENCE - We have updates from Florence, Onconto, and Shawano Counties on the identification of the invasive Emerald Ash Borer species which attacks and kills all true ash species. They have been found in 57 of the 72 counties in Wisconsin.
Public Lands Forester, of Florence County, Tyler Wood explained how the Emerald Ash Borer likes to travel on firewood, to reduce the spread to other places, burn the wood in the same place you bought or gathered it.
"The Emerald Ash Borer can fly easily about a half a mile, and up to maybe 5 miles away from a host tree to find another tree in order to infect that tree," said Wood.
Though there won't be a significant impact on the environment in Florence county, not knowing if your tree is infected could lead to safety concerns around your property or for people with streets lined with the trees, dangerous roadways could occur during storms.
Forest Health Specialist, Linda Williams, spoke about how the future extinction would affect more than just the forest. The MLB uses ash trees to make their baseball bats, as well as the local Native American tribes whos culture traditions create baskets from ash.
"The Emerald Ash Borer will kill the Ash Trees. And we've seen that happening in southern Wisconsin as well as other states that have had it for much longer than us. Other species of trees tend to come into those sites sometimes they are desirable species and some are not," said Williams..
If you are a concerned ash tree owner some signs that your tree has been infested is the outer bark removed by woodpeckers, and D-shaped holes where the insects have emerged.
For people with 10 plus acres you can file a request with the DNR to have a walk through to understand how to manage the Emerald Ash Borer at mywisconsinwoods.org.
WASHINGTON - Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive yet towering women's rights champion who became the court's second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington. She was 87.
Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said.
MADISON - The state Department of Workforce Development's top leader resigned Friday after failing to find a way to address a massive backlog of unprocessed unemployment benefit claims sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' office said Caleb Frostman stepped down after the governor called for his resignation. Republicans have peppered Evers with criticism for months over the department's inability to process tens of thousands of benefit claims that have been flowing in since the coronavirus took hold in the U.S. in March.
MOSINEE - President Donald Trump stepped up his rhetoric on cultural issues, aiming to boost enthusiasm among rural Wisconsin voters as he tries to repeat his path to victory four years ago.
Making his fifth visit to the pivotal battleground state this year, Trump views success in the state's less-populated counties as critical to another term. He held a rally Thursday evening in Mosinee, in central Wisconsin, an area of the state that shifted dramatically toward Republicans in 2016, enabling Trump to overcome even greater deficits in urban and suburban parts of the state.
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