|The City Hall building is one of many historic sites in Columbus, Wis. Photo by David Carlson
For many of the people at Columbus Water & Light (CWL), Columbus is not just the city where they work; it’s where they made the memories that shaped them into the people they are today. Growing up in Columbus, they waited eagerly for ice cream treats from Mullins in the summer, attended events at the park pavilion and watched fireworks during the city-wide Fourth of July celebration.
Columbus residents have a deep appreciation for the past, and the city certainly has a wealth of intriguing history. The city houses the Farmers and Merchants Union Bank, the last of eight “jewel box” buildings designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan, built in 1919. The Christopher Columbus museum features relics from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago. The downtown is so historic it was even selected as a filming location for the period film Public Enemies, which stars Johnny Depp as the Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger.
A Growing Community
However, while history is an important part of Columbus’ identity, the city is also growing and changing. When CWL office manager Nancy Olson was a child, she says Columbus was such a small community that “you used to know everyone in the town.” With a current estimated population of around 5,000 residents, that’s no longer the case. Columbus is home to a number of growing businesses, such as Enerpac and American Packaging. Several established businesses are also located in Columbus, including Lyco Manufacturing, Hughes Company, GAR Plastics, GD Roberts, Shopko, Ace Hardware, Pick n Save, True Value Hardware and Sentry Foods.
New Technologies at Columbus Water & Light
Just as the town has changed, so has the utility. CWL was founded in 1898 by the citizens of Columbus. Over the years, CWL staff have adopted several changes to incorporate new technologies.
“We used to write payroll checks by hand,” Olson says with a chuckle. “Our meter readers used to travel out to every meter and manually write down meter readings in a book.” The utility staff later changed to handheld methods for meter reading and most recently, to Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI).
CWL implemented AMI throughout nearly its entire customer base with help from WPPI Energy’s shared meter tech program and revolving loan fund.
AMI has made field work more efficient. “Meter reading used to tie up two linemen at the beginning of each month,” says CWL superintendent Eric Anthon. Now these functions can be handled remotely, which makes the process much faster.
AMI has also made office functions more efficient. During a storm or other outage, employees are able to access information about which houses don’t have power and provide timelier, more accurate updates on power restoration. They can also provide much more detailed data about electricity usage, which can help customers identify fixable problems, save money and reduce their energy consumption.
Efficient Energy Use
Over the past few years, CWL has completed several projects to help the city use energy more efficiently. They were the first in Wisconsin to convert their community’s streetlights to LEDs. They installed charging stations for electric and hybrid vehicles, converted lighting to more efficient options in three public parking lots and replaced the city's fleet with electric and hybrid vehicles.
|The Farmers and Merchants Union Bank was used for a bank robbery scene in the movie Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp.
Photo by David Carlson
CWL currently offers rebate and incentive programs for residential customers who invest in an efficient air conditioning unit, high-efficiency washer, qualifying shade tree or professional central air conditioning unit tune-up. CWL also offers bonus rewards to customers who participate in the Focus on Energy Small Business Program.
Values That Stand the Test of Time
While there have been a lot of changes over the years, the family values at the heart of CWL’s operations have stood the test of time. The 14 CWL staff members know they have to work together in order to get things done. They communicate well, do things as a group, and try to maintain a work-life balance that supports individuals as people, not just as workers.
Energy Services Representative Anna Stieve has worked with CWL for nearly a year. In that time, she’s observed the level of respect staff members have for each other.
“They’re like a family,” she says. “They all seem to like each other and get along well.”
A Bright Future
With several projects in the works – a new Ottery Brothers building, Ford dealership, fire station, updated park pavilion and underground electrical infrastructure – Columbus has much to look forward to in the future. For the people of Columbus, these changes are all new opportunities to make memories in their home town.