Mary Jo Ferko was excited.
It was 1968. She was a fifth-grader at St. Lucy’s Catholic School in Racine, and she had been called out of class for a meeting in the office.
For more than a year, she and four of her classmates had been writing to U.S. Marine Harry Warren Schneider, who was fighting the war in Vietnam.
Schneider sent her kindly letters, and she felt she was connected to something big that was happening. The war in Vietnam was constantly in the news in those years.
“Today was my birthday. I am 19 years old now, although I don’t seem any older than yesterday,” he wrote to her on Nov. 21, 1968. “You know something? I don’t live very far from you. My hometown is Janesville.”
Mary Jo Ross, the woman that little girl grew up to become, said the letters were a big part of her life.
“He wasn’t just a pen pal. He represented our culture at the time. … I think it was that connection to what was going on in our world with the war and to know you really knew somebody that was right there and part of it, and he was going to tell you about it, that you were making a difference in someone’s life. … He always made it sound like our letter was the best thing happening to him, and I guess it was.
“It was on TV every night, and I would see that and think, that’s what Mr. Schneider is doing.”
So when young Mary Jo and the other four students were called to the office, she was thrilled because she expected to hear that Warren, as he asked her to call him, was going to meet them.
The students’ fourth-grade teacher, Mary Bany, arranged for the class to be pen pals with soldiers in Vietnam. Ross isn’t sure where she got the names and addresses.
“She was really a special teacher. She was a sweet lady. She was young, she was tender, loving. We were so lucky to have her,” Ross recalled.
The students wrote a prayer for Schneider, and he thanked them, writing: “Now I know for sure that someone is watching over us.”
In more than one letter, he asked her about snow—had it fallen yet? But he would never see snow again.
“Yesterday was Christmas,” he wrote on Dec. 26, 1966. “My friends and I sure enjoyed your present. Thank you very much. It wouldn’t of (sic) seemed like Christmas if it wasn’t for you and your friend, and also Miss Bany. You really made things bright for me this year.”
Maybe next year, he wrote, he could be home and make Christmas bright for her.
The Marine had died in a fierce battle on Feb. 16, 1968. That’s why the students were called out of class that day.
Ross can’t remember what was said, but the table where they sat in the office and the stunned looks on people’s faces are still fresh in her memory.
She was stunned. She walked home, two blocks away. When she entered her house, she burst into tears.
“I think it was the first time I was ever touched by death,” Ross said.
“I can’t imagine what his family was going through.”
The news came shortly after Valentine’s Day, so every year on that day, she thought about Warren, she said.
She kept four of Schneider’s letters through the years, as she became a nurse, married and had children. Her husband served in the Air Force, so she came to appreciate the sacrifice made by those in the military, she said.
“I was always looking for a way to find this guy’s family,” she said.
About 50 years after his death, she was in an art gallery in Egg Harbor operated by Janesville artist Connie Glowacki.
She overheard Connie’s husband, Mike Glowacki, mention Janesville, and it came back to her. She asked him to help find Warren’s relatives. Maybe they would like to have the letters.
Glowacki contacted Schneiders he knows but found no relatives, so he turned to The Gazette.
The news of 20-year-old Schneider’s death was on the front page of The Janesville Gazette on Feb. 23, 1968.
The short article said he was the son of James and Gladys Sabin Schneider of Milton-Shopiere Road and a 1965 graduate of Clinton High School.
The article listed brothers Carl of Elkhorn and three siblings at home, Diane, Donna and Richard.
The article had few details of what happened. But Schneider was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest medal that can be awarded to a member of the military.
The citation was “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action … in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.”
The citation goes on to describe the events of Feb. 16, 1968: Schneider was crew chief and gunner aboard a UH-1E “Huey” helicopter that was diverted to support the emergency extraction of an eight-man reconnaissance team.
The team “was heavily engaged with a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force six miles northwest of Dong Ha.”
The battle was in an area known as the demilitarized zone, but at that time, the area separating north and south Vietnam was highly militarized, with U.S. Marines and North Vietnamese Army units in frequent battles.
“Arriving over the designated area, he expertly directed a heavy volume of machine gun fire on the enemy positions during repeated strafing runs in support of the extraction aircraft,” the citation reads.
“Although five Marines had been extracted, subsequent attempts to rescue the remaining men failed due to a heavy volume of ground fire, which had seriously damaged three helicopters.”
Schneider’s pilot volunteered to evacuate the remaining men.
Heavy fire made the pilot abort his first try, but he made a second run, with Schneider sending in heavy volumes of machine gun bullets from the air and after landing, “enabling the three Marines to embark. Lifting from the fire-swept site, his aircraft was struck by a burst of enemy fire and crashed, mortally wounding Cpl. Schneider.”
Honors and horrors
A posthumous Medal of Honor, three Navy Crosses, eight Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars were awarded to participants in the battle, according to an article published by Quad Cities Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 299.
A major source for that article was Frank Perez, now of Moline, Illinois, one of the Marines sent to help with the extraction.
Perez told The Gazette he had just returned to his base from a mission when he saw gunships firing tracers into the jungle a few miles away.
Minutes later, his unit was sent into the fray, dropped into high grass by a Chinook helicopter.
Perez remembered 50-year-old details like they happened yesterday. They walked through the grass in the dark toward the action until they saw shadowy figures on the trail ahead of them.
They called out, “Recon?” and heard Vietnamese.
His lieutenant threw a grenade, and he saw bodies flying.
That started an intense battle that continued much of the night.
His unit retreated to a hilltop, where later that confusing and fear-filled night he was fired on by both sides.
That morning, Perez’s unit helped retrieve the dead and wounded. He remembers blowing up Schneider’s crashed Huey to keep it from being salvaged by the enemy.
Asked what he thought of those men who flew into the gunfire to rescue other Marines, Perez said, “They’re nuts!”
The Hueys were like tin cans used for target practice, and one bullet in the right place could bring them down, Perez said.
However, “It was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do,” Perez said. “If you were in a situation like that, you would just pray that someone would come out to give you a hand. …
“The guys that didn’t come home are the ones we need to thank and never forget.”
Mary Jo Ross will never forget. As she looked over the letters last week, it occurred to her that Schneider’s DNA was on those pages.
“That’s kind of neat to think, you know—he touched this. …
“Warren passed away at such a young age. His family should be so proud of him.”
When Gale Price attends meetings with local companies, he always approaches new people and asks them if they’ve found a place to live in Janesville.
The answer is usually “no.”
“They’re all saying the same thing on the rental side. They’re not landing in Janesville because there’s not units available,” said Price, the city’s economic development director. “That’s the challenge. Eventually, that becomes an economic development issue. You can’t attract the workforce to come to your company, and you can’t retain quality employees if they don’t have the right living environments.”
Janesville has struggled with a low rental vacancy rate for a couple of years. Still, as builders and city officials have said for months, rents are too low to cover construction costs of new units.
But simple economics should say that if supply is low and demand is high, prices should increase on their own.
They are rising. Just not high enough and not quickly enough, local officials say.
Higher building expenses are partially due to natural inflation. Tariffs on certain building materials and a construction labor shortage have added to the cost.
“Rents have not kept up with construction in Janesville,” Price said.
“Every single developer I’ve talked to—doesn’t matter if it’s a low-income project or a workforce housing project or if it’s a market-rate, high-end project—they’ve all said the same thing: unusually low rental rates in Janesville.”
The average monthly price tag to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Janesville gradually has climbed from $572 in 2015 to a projected $612 in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That isn’t a substantial change from recession levels. The average one-bedroom unit would have cost $569 in 2009, as Janesville slowly began to reinvent itself after the General Motors plant ended production.
The federal formula is calculated using rental data from previous years and does not always account for real-time market changes. Janesville’s own projection of average one-bedroom rent for 2019 is $673, city Housing Services Director Kelly Bedessem wrote in an email to The Gazette.
In the aftermath of GM, some landlords hesitated to raise rents because they feared losing good tenants. The plant’s shuttering left plenty of rental units empty. Even as occupancy stabilized and swelled, a few landlords kept their rents steady, Price said.
Paul Schieldt is co-owner of R.K. Smith Realty, one of the city’s largest property management companies. Rents often increase during tenant turnover, when landlords reinvest in the unit and give it a face-lift, he said.
Making those upgrades might cost up to $2,000 but net a rent increase of only $25 per month. It would take time to recoup the investment, which is why many landlords prefer to hold rents steady and discourage tenants from leaving, he said.
R.K. Smith manages about 1,000 units, and its size stands out amid many mom-and-pop operations that list their apartments on Craigslist.
Schieldt didn’t think those small rental companies were holding back the market or being overly hesitant to charge more.
“They’re probably pricing against us. They’re probably going to our website and seeing what we’re charging,” he said. “In some cases they may be charging more or on par. Pricing conditions seek their own parallels. It doesn’t matter if it’s a for-rent unit or for-sale unit.”
The Janesville City Council voted in September to modify its tax increment financing policy to include multifamily housing. Previously, the council could provide incentives to residential projects only if they were downtown, but the revision now makes the entire city eligible.
The change immediately sparked plans for a potential 250-unit, market-rate development near the southwest corner of Racine Street and Interstate 90/39.
Hovde Properties manages Woodsview Apartments at the northwest corner of the same intersection. Price said Woodsview was probably at the top of Janesville’s rental market because of its interior finishes and shared amenities on site.
Hovde has not officially proposed the project, and President Mike Slavish previously told The Gazette he wanted to submit plans by mid-October. He did not return calls seeking an update.
That isn’t the only potential multifamily development publicly revealed in the past few months.
The Corner Block on Parker would be a 60-unit building with co-working space on the ground floor and some underground parking. That project was presented in August at a joint city council and plan commission meeting but has not been officially proposed, either.
At the northeastern edge of the city, McCormick Crossing would have offered commercial space, multifamily residential and single-family homes. The plan commission nixed the idea in October after neighbors complained it would add too much noise and traffic and perhaps make the neighborhood less safe.
The developer said he planned to revise his ideas.
None of the projects have formally asked for TIF money, but if recurring comments from Price and developers are any indication, it’s likely they would request financial help to cover construction costs and compensate for low rents.
Subsidizing high-end and market-rate residential development as the city pushes to address homelessness might raise eyebrows. But it’s a tool the city must consider if it wants to compete with other municipalities, Forward Janesville President John Beckord said.
Janesville doesn’t necessarily have to offer the same deal as, say, Middleton would, but no help at all means the city should prepare for “very modest” residential growth, he said.
“Most developers have choices, and they can deploy that capital in lots of different places,” Beckord said. “If you don’t want to compete against other communities, that is a legitimate decision for a city council to make. But understand what the consequences are.”
Price said Rock County is a prioritized area for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, which awards tax credits for low-income housing. Projects at both ends of the economic spectrum would balance the market and give renters more choices, he said.
Historically, Janesville has offered plenty of blue-collar job opportunities. But the local economy is beginning to change with companies such as SHINE and N1 Critical Technologies making their homes here.
Those businesses and others have more executive-level jobs, which the city hasn’t had much of in the past. That demands more high-end housing, Price said.
Ultimately, though, Janesville needs rental units at all economic levels because the city hasn’t seen a new project in 12 years. That’s when Woodsview was finished and townhouses at Holiday Commons were constructed, he said.
If Janesville’s employment and economy remain strong, Price sees the rental housing market continuing to grow. Many people have decided to rent because they either can’t afford or don’t want to maintain their own homes.
Different generations are powering those changes across the country, keeping the rental market robust. Janesville will be no exception.
“The millennials and baby boomers are converging on the same point in the market. They’re looking for the same type of product but for different reasons,” Price said. “The baby boomers are trying to downsize. The millennials are choosing that life path to be renters in nice rental units.
“I think that’s going to drive a lot of this multifamily stuff.”
Bonita G. “Bonnie” Becker
Cheryi L. Brefeld
Richard H. Brown Jr.
Michael G. Earleywine
Mary Ellen Kennedy
Paul E. Kremer Jr.
Carol A. Martinez
Aubri Arden Moore
Carol Joyce Okray
Frank Jerry Ontl
Richard R. “Dick” Triebold
The state’s deal with Foxconn Technology Group is done and the contracts signed, but the recently unveiled agreements between Amazon and New York and Virginia have put Wisconsin’s subsidies for the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer in the spotlight again.
Comparing the deals is muddy work, but even by the most generous reckoning, it appears Wisconsin is paying more per job than will go to Amazon for its much-watched “second headquarters” developments in New York and Virginia.
Whether Wisconsin’s huge incentive package proves to be worthwhile—and Amazon comparisons aside, many question the wisdom of the very practice of public subsidies for corporations—won’t be known for years.
If Foxconn, as it has said it will, creates 13,000 jobs and invests $10 billion in the manufacturing and research complex it has begun building in Mount Pleasant, the company stands to receive $2.85 billion in state tax credits.
The credits are “refundable,” meaning Foxconn will receive payments even if it doesn’t owe taxes. Wisconsin waives nearly all corporate and income taxes on manufacturing profits, so the credits likely will take the form of cash payments to the company.
That amounts to $219,000 per job. New York, meanwhile, has promised Amazon just under $3 billion for 25,000 jobs, or about $120,000 per job.
Virginia’s offer to Amazon is more complex, but its subsidies per job also appear to be lower than Foxconn’s.
And some observers say the gap between Wisconsin and the Amazon states is much larger than the basic numbers suggest.
But Foxconn advocates here say significant differences with the Amazon projects make comparisons between the incentive packages difficult.
“When you do the math straight up, Wisconsin paid more per job,” said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. But, he added, that’s partly because of “the multiplier and the supply chain that flow out of manufacturing versus out of Amazon.”
Analysts use multipliers to project the additional jobs generated as the salaries and other money from a new business spread through the economy.
As a manufacturing operation, Foxconn has a higher jobs multiplier than Amazon, a services firm, Sheehy said.
He pointed to a 2017 study of Foxconn’s economic impact projecting that every 100 jobs at Foxconn will create another 170 jobs at other companies in Wisconsin. A study of the impact of the Amazon development in Virginia, meanwhile, projects that every 100 Amazon jobs will create another 88 to 99 jobs in that state.
The Virginia study was commissioned by the state’s economic development agency and was carried out by a research institute at George Mason University.
The Foxconn study was commissioned by Foxconn and was done by its consultant, professional services firm Ernst & Young.
In a subsequent review of Ernst & Young’s numbers, accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly concluded that Foxconn would create fewer spinoff jobs—between 93 and 140 for every 100 jobs at Foxconn itself. Baker Tilly’s review was commissioned by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Also worth noting: Both studies of Foxconn’s impact assumed the company would build a so-called Generation 10.5 display panel factory, the largest and most costly in the industry. Foxconn has retreated from those plans, saying that in response to market conditions it now will start with construction of a smaller, “Generation 6” plant. However, it has consistently maintained that it will invest $10 billion in its Racine County campus and create 13,000 Wisconsin jobs.
While Foxconn is expected to spawn proportionally more outside jobs than Amazon, employment at Foxconn will pay far less.
Wisconsin’s contract with Foxconn calls for the company’s jobs here to average just under $54,000 a year. The proposals in New York and Virginia call for an average of $150,000 a year.
Prevailing salaries and the cost of living are higher in New York City and northern Virginia. Still, the average salary at Amazon would be nearly double the $75,745 average of metropolitan New York, and more than double the $68,363 of metropolitan Washington, D.C.
The Foxconn average would be about 4 percent higher than the metropolitan Milwaukee average and 15 percent higher than the metropolitan Racine average.
The figures on average annual salaries come from a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics database that covers almost all employers.
Virginia also calls on Amazon to raise its average annual salary by 1.5 percent a year, taking it to about $164,000 in 2025, for example, and nearly $177,000 in 2030.
In an email, Mark Maley, spokesman for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., noted that in addition to its manufacturing campus in Mount Pleasant, Foxconn has opened a North American headquarters in Milwaukee; announced planned innovation centers in Green Bay, Eau Claire and Racine; pledged $100 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a science and research institute; and launched other initiatives.
“Comparing this transformational opportunity to the new Amazon headquarters in New York and Virginia is comparing apples to oranges,” Maley said. “While Amazon’s HQ2 investment would be welcome in any state, Foxconn’s presence in Wisconsin will reshape our economy, education system and workforce as it brings the next generation of advanced manufacturing to Wisconsin and North America.”
But it also can be argued that Amazon is a surer bet. Foxconn plans to bring to Wisconsin a type of manufacturing that is fully developed in Asia but essentially doesn’t exist anywhere in the United States.
Amazon is more of a known entity. The Seattle-based online retailing giant dominates its niche, employs more than 330,000 people in the U.S. and operates enough warehouses, data centers, offices and stores across North America to cover 3,500 acres.
Sheehy said Wisconsin will see a larger benefit in construction jobs over the four years it takes to build Foxconn’s complex. Baker Tilly estimated that direct, indirect and induced construction employment could run as high as nearly 25,000 for the period.
That’s temporary, Sheehy said, “but it’s four years of a lot of jobs.”
The $10 billion capital investment by Foxconn, meanwhile, would be twice the investment by Amazon in New York and Virginia combined, Maley said.
But Timothy Bartik, senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and someone who has looked extensively at the Foxconn development, said Wisconsin’s incentives appear to be much greater than those for Amazon.
Calculating the Wisconsin subsidies at a little less than $4 billion—a figure that includes $764 million from local government largely for infrastructure spending—Bartik estimated that the Foxconn package is 12 times greater than the average U.S. incentives for economic development projects.
He estimated New York’s proposed incentives at twice the national average, and Virginia’s at about one-third the average.
Sheehy argues against counting the $764 million in local spending because Foxconn has guaranteed in its contract that its Mount Pleasant campus will generate enough in new property taxes to repay the money.
Sheehy also points to some $2 billion in planned education and infrastructure spending in northern Virginia that is listed in the state and local financial commitments related to Amazon—spending Bartik doesn’t count in toting up Virginia’s subsidies.
In an email, Bartik said the infrastructure improvements in Mount Pleasant appear to be very specific to Foxconn, while those planned in Virginia—including nearly $1.1 billion to enhance tech education—are “general public goods that are generally useful to residents and businesses of northern Virginia.”
Sheehy, for his part, said at least some of the planned Virginia spending must be driven by Amazon.
Such varying perspectives underscore the difficulty of analyzing incentive packages to assess, in Sheehy’s words, “what is for the benefit of the company and what has broader benefit.”
Even excluding the local spending for Foxconn, the incentives the company stands to receive still would total 10 times the U.S. average, Bartik said.
“It’s hard for me to think of a deal of this size that’s quite so generous,” he said in an interview. “It really is an outlier.”
But WEDC Secretary Mark Hogan said in a statement that the contract with Foxconn “was right for Wisconsin because it provided the company with the flexibility and incentives it needs to be successful in our state, while also giving taxpayers a high level of certainty that their investment will be protected.”
Sheehy also noted the inclusion in the contract of such protections as pay-for-performance and clawback provisions, and said he believes the deal stands up alongside those being made with Amazon.
“Compared to those two packages, Wisconsin got a fair shake,” he said. “There’s a lot that has to play out on both.”