DIANE HENDRICKS: AMERICA’S SECOND RICHEST WOMAN’S QUEST TO REVIVE BELOIT, WI!

https://www.nytimes.com/video/business/100000005337194/beloit-a-small-wisconsin-town-seeks-to-become-a-tech-haven.html?emc=edit_nn_20170807&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=79213886&te=1

Alexandra Stevenson writes in the NY Times Business Section:

BELOIT, Wis. — When Diane Hendricks sees something she doesn’t like here, she buys it.

A bankrupt country club. A half-empty mall. Abandoned buildings. The rusting foundry down by the river.

Beloit used to be a town that made papermaking machines and diesel engines. Ms. Hendricks thinks it can be a place where start-ups create the next billion-dollar idea, and she is remaking the town to fit her vision. She can do so because she is the second-richest self-made woman in the United States, behind only Marian Ilitch of Little Caesars Pizza, according to Forbes magazine.

“I see old buildings, and I see an opportunity for putting things in them,” says Ms. Hendricks, 70, who got her start fixing up houses here as a single mother and made her billions selling roofing felt, copper gutters and cement with her late husband, Ken.

Now Ms. Hendricks is fixing up Beloit.

She took the library from its historic location downtown and resurrected it inside a failing mall at the edge of town, replacing the original with a performing arts center where dance and music students from Beloit College can study and perform each year. Then she scooped up nearly every building on a downtown block and knocked each one down, making way for a sushi restaurant, a high-quality burger joint and modern apartments with marble countertops and exposed-brick walls.

Lyndon French for The New York Times

“It’s the one thing that Ken and I said we’d never do: buy restaurants or a golf course. And now we have both.”

Diane Hendricks, founder and chairwoman of ABC Supply.

She called the complex the Phoenix. “It looks like we’re beautifying the city, but we’re really beautifying the economy,” she says, casting her piercing blue eyes out of the window of her office in Ironworks, the old foundry complex she converted into a commercial space.

She has wooed several start-ups, persuading them to set up shop in the old foundry building — one with the help of Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, who personally called the co-founders on her behalf.

Ms. Hendricks, a major Republican donor, was briefly thrust into the national spotlight a few years ago when she was recorded asking Mr. Walker to break up the labor unions. He then introduced a bill limiting the ability of public workers to bargain over wages. In response, protesters occupied the halls of the Capitol for weeks.

Not long ago, Beloit’s economy was ugly. Like many American cities — Detroit, Youngstown, Gary — it had fallen victim to the damage that is wrought when one major industry vanishes from town, reversing local fortunes.

Beloit is different today. That’s because this town of nearly 37,000 has a billionaire who has gone to great lengths to help it turn a corner.

In a nation with countless struggling towns and small cities, Beloit is not a model for economic revival that is easily replicated, although a few others have tried.

. . . .

Despite Ms. Hendricks’s efforts, unemployment is still high. A short drive south of the Phoenix and new buildings turn to boarded-up shops. Beloit remains deeply troubled. About a quarter of the population lives in poverty, twice the rate of residents in the rest of Rock County. One in every four children lives in poverty in the county, according to Project 16:49, a nonprofit group that works with homeless youth.

What’s more, many new jobs are filled by people who commute to Beloit from nearby cities. At AccuLynx, a software company based in the Ironworks, just 17 percent of the employees live in Beloit. The rest live in nearby towns in Wisconsin and just over the border in Illinois.

And many of the new jobs require technical skills, like engineering, that residents who once worked in manufacturing often lack. “I know that there are parts of Beloit that are not sharing in this renaissance,” says Scott Bierman, president of Beloit College.

Mr. Bierman credits Ms. Hendricks for providing a vision of how things can be. Still, he says, “I worry a lot.”

While he does see signs that what Ms. Hendricks has built can be sustainable, “We’ll know a lot more once we get through the next recession,” he said.

For now, around 1,000 people currently work out of Ironworks, according to Mr. Gerbitz of Hendricks Commercial Properties. “Our goal is to get to 5,000, which was what was lost when Beloit Corporation went away,” he said.

Ironworks today is a far cry from its foundry origins. At AccuLynx, the software firm, there is a giant slide running down from the second floor to the first, a video-game console and a giant gold bell that is rung when sales are made.

AccuLynx’s founder, Rich Spanton, described the day his grandfather, who had worked at the foundry as a superintendent for nearly a half-century, visited the building, where he had spent a career assembling steel parts for paper machines. He was astonished at what he saw.

“He walked in,” Mr. Spanton recalls, “and he said, ‘Jeez, we couldn’t have gotten any work done if this had been our office.’”

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Cathy, Luna, and I happen to be in Beloit, Wisconsin this week visiting our daughter Anna, who is a middle school teacher in the Beloit Public Schools, her husband, Daniel, who is a Professor of Musicology at Beloit College, and their children Oscar and Eve. Cathy, Luna, and I actually walked by the “Phoenix Complex” this morning on our way to a vegan morning breakfast and coffee at “Bagels and More.” On the way back to Anna’s we walked along the Rock River walkway and saw the revitalized Iron Works Complex on the other side. Daniel’s office and classrooms are in the Hendricks Center for the Arts, mentioned in this article. All in all, Hendricks’s vision is everywhere in this part of Beloit.
As its often the case, not everyone here is a “fan” of Hendricks, particularly because of her politics and opposition to unions. On the other hand, one has to respect that 1) Hendricks worked hard for her money — she was a key part of her husband’s American success story; 2) she is turning her money into a public good, something that certainly not all billionaires do (nobody is “making” her invest in Beloit, rather than buying more cars, private planes, swimming pools, vacation homes, etc,. or doing some of the self-indulgent things that some other billionaires enjoy), 3) much like “white resentment,” there is always a certain amount of resentment of the rich just because they are rich; and 4) she can’t do it all — she’s bringing a different kind of job opportunity to Beloit and maybe it’s now up to others in the community and those who want to improve their lot to work hard to develop the skills needed to be successful in a technology-based regional economy — heavy manufacturing and machine tooling aren’t coming back to Beloit — ever.
I have to say that I’m quite favorably impressed by Hendricks’s efforts. Makes me wonder what would happen if someone “on the other side of the political equation” like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg joined up with her in a nonpartisan effort to bring the technological training to the area necessary to get the rest of the community into meaningful jobs. At any rate, she’s certainly someone who is “walking the walk and talking the talk.” Seems like a good role model for folks of any political persuasion.
Interestingly, in the complete story, a key point was when Hendricks and her late husband were turned down for a loan in Janesville, WI because the bank “didn’t want their kind of entrepreneurs.” (Sort of reminds me of the attitude some folks take toward migrants today.) So, they got out of Janesville and went to a more welcoming community — Beloit.
Just shows that “little insults, slights, and ‘disses,’ can have a huge and unexpected long term impact.” Something that Trump and his followers should keep in mind when dealing with all types of migrants. There almost certainly will come a day when we will need the goodwill and help of many of them — what impressions are we leaving with our current national dialogue on immigration and what will be the long-tern impact on America and our history?
Finally, this story wouldn’t be complete without a “shout out” to Anna, Daniel, and the other families making up the “Beloit Proud” movement. A core of young professionals, many connected with Beloit College, have chosen to make Beloit their homes, rather than “fleeing” to Madison, Rockford, IL., or even Janesville. They send their children to Beloit Public Schools, are heavily involved in community activities cities, and try to “buy local” and use local services whenever possible. Many have chosen to live in neighborhoods within walking distance from Beloit College. And, it seems to be working. Just in Anna’s and Daniel’s immediate neighborhood some dynamic young families have chosen to make Beloit their home and fix up their properties “just because it seems like a great place to live and do business.” I also wrote about “Beloit Proud” and the Beloit College in a post earlier this summer about my short experience as a “Guest Professor” in Professor Jennifer Esperanza’s Cultural Anthropology course June. http://immigrationcourtside.com/2017/06/05/anth-375-beloit-college-professor-jennifer-esperanza-her-students-blaze-path-to-understanding-migration-in-the-liberal-arts-context-every-college-in-america-should-be-teaching-these-essential/
I doubt that I will ever meet Diane Hendricks. If I did, I’m sure we wouldn’t find much common political ground. But, we would agree that investing in Beloit and making it a great place to live — for everyone — is a great and noble idea and that she is setting an example for others to follow.
PWS
08-07-17