Digging Deeper Into the Rhinelander Story

A closer look at a hometown public works project reveals a story that can’t be told in just a few pages.

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You’ll find something a little different in this month’s issue of MSW. We’re taking an in-depth look at a downtown reconstruction project in my hometown — Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

Rhinelander is about six hours north of Chicago, surrounded by big forests and one of the densest concentrations of freshwater lakes in the world. Long ago, the Windy City’s Prohibition-era gangsters regularly fled here to escape the law. Al Capone was no stranger to the area, and John Dillinger’s famous shootout with the FBI happened about 40 miles away at the Little Bohemia resort.

It’s a tourist area, but Rhinelander is more of a commercial and industrial city. Its population is approximately 7,500, but it supports a much broader base of people who live outside the city limits. For the better part of the 20th century, the town’s paper mill was the largest employer. It still plays a major role in the local economy, but it’s not quite as significant as it once was.

A stroll through downtown Rhinelander exposes a city that has eroded since the mill was at its peak, in some cases significantly. Some buildings show neglect, empty storefronts aren’t uncommon, and potholes are ubiquitous on downtown streets. The underground infrastructure was also in decline.

The local government has not invested significantly in its infrastructure, until recently. In 2010, the city’s new $25 million wastewater treatment plant went online. The downtown project, which has been in the planning process for years, will cost the city approximately $9 million. In addition to separating the city’s remaining combined sewers, and replacing and upsizing water and sewer lines, the project includes a new streetscape that will go a long way in breathing life back into a downtown that has for years suffered from shifting traffic patterns and the proliferation of big-box stores on the city’s outskirts.

We’ve highlighted plenty of projects in these pages over the years, but this is a slightly different approach, and since it’s right in our backyard, we’re continuing to cover the story in greater depth online. You’ll get a good overview of the project in this issue, and then you can immediately head over to MSWmag.com for an update on everything that’s happened since we went to press.

So many of these projects, in towns across the country, are about so much more than just putting new pipes in the ground, and we’re going to bring you that perspective. You’ll find a large photo gallery documenting the progress, along with additional stories providing different views of the project — everything from a more in-depth community profile to engineering challenges and securing project funding. We’ll be covering it right up to completion.

We’ll be compiling all this additional content at www.MSWmag.com/Rhinelander.

Enjoy this month’s issue, and the extra content.


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