New Richmond, Wisconsin
Show, don’t tell.
|The mill pond in New Richmond is part of the Willow River.
That’s the mantra in New Richmond, where the city administrator/utility manager has been a familiar face to local business owners and residents.
Mike Darrow, who started as city administrator and manager of New Richmond Utilities (NRU) in April 2012, has continued in the tradition of his predecessor with his own unique approach and ambitious goals.
“We had a minor outage a couple of days ago. We picked up the phone and then we went out to the people affected to show them what the cause of the outage was,” Darrow said in an interview. “It was caused by a faulty device, and these things happen. But people really appreciate when you come in and explain it.
“If there’s ever a problem, we’re on top of it. We can provide a quicker response. We also offer technical assistance and funding for energy-usage improvements,” he continued.
The locally owned utility’s attention to customer service is a selling point in economic development efforts, Darrow said.
Darrow previously served as the city administrator in Gilbert, Minnesota, an Iron Range community that purchased wholesale electricity from Minnesota Power.
When he came to New Richmond, he found a resource in Dennis Horner, who had served as city administrator and utility manager for 27 years.
In addition to his extensive community involvement, Horner was a strong advocate for public power who stayed involved in legislative events in Madison and Washington, D.C. Horner’s leadership extended to several WPPI Energy committees and advisory groups, including terms as chair of the Board of Directors and chair and secretary of the Executive Committee.
Understanding Business Needs
|New Richmond Utilities staff has met with many local business owners.
Darrow’s goal for 2013 is to meet with each of the city’s 350 businesses within one year. At the current pace, he should reach that goal sometime this summer.
“Whether it’s on the utility side or the economic development side, if you don’t know who your customers are, you could lose a great opportunity to retain them,” Darrow said.
While Darrow and his staff have used the visits with business managers and owners to discuss utility rates or other issues, there is no set agenda when they arrive.
“They appreciate the opportunity just to have somebody to listen,” he said. “From our perspective, it’s great to understand not only what their needs are, but also what they are doing worldwide from this very small community in one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. It’s pretty amazing and we have a lot to be proud of.”
Darrow cites companies like Engineered Propulsion Systems, which is developing and manufacturing a lightweight, high-powered diesel engine that is diesel/jet fuel compatible, and Liquid Waste Technology, which designs and manufactures automated sludge handling equipment, as just two examples of growing global companies based in the community of 8,400 about 40 miles east of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.
Three local businesses have achieved the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Green Tier status.
“New Richmond can and should be very proud to have three Green Tier participants like Bosch Packaging Technology, Federal Foam Technologies and Phillips-Medisize within their community,” said Peter Skorseth, an environmental engineer with DNR.
Bosch Packaging Technology, Inc. earned the distinction by significantly reducing waste, energy usage and water usage; lowering carbon dioxide emissions by 12 percent from 2007 to 2011 at its facilities and taking other measures.
Federal Foam Technologies, Inc. reduced energy consumption, reduced production noise and increased cardboard recycling, among other efforts.
Phillips-Medisize Corp.’s New Richmond facility has implemented many reduction, reuse and recycling initiatives, including a retrofitted lighting system that will save as much as 250,000 kilowatt-hours of energy a year.
To help expand and attract new business, New Richmond dropped all city impact fees, both from the city and utility, for a limited time. That brought in $23 million in new construction projects over the next two years. The city also hopes to establish a new revolving loan program for downtown businesses.
When completed in 2016, the new St. Croix River Crossing will connect the north side of New Richmond to Stillwater, Minnesota, and make commuting to and from the Twin Cities much easier. To make the most of this opportunity, New Richmond is conducting a land-use study on the north side and is exploring the idea of adding utility infrastructure to accommodate future growth. At the same time, the city is launching a marketing campaign and video in the Twin Cities.
Helping Residents Save
|New Richmond's historic train depot was built in 1915 by the Wisconsin Central Railway.
NRU participates in the statewide renewable energy and energy-efficiency program Focus on Energy to offer incentives and programs to residential customers. Last year nearly 15 percent of the city’s 2,000 eligible homeowners participated in Focus’ Express Energy Efficiency Program.
By having pipe insulation, aerators, shower heads and CFL bulbs installed, these homes will see a combined annual energy savings of 287,614 kilowatt-hours. The utility will reach out again this summer to maximize participation, said Weston Arndt, the community’s energy services representative.
Homeowners also can opt to complete a Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® assessment for $45. Projects completed by the end of 2013 and verified in a post-performance assessment are eligible for incentives from Focus on Energy, New Richmond Utilities, and/or Xcel Energy. Incentives could cover up to 66 percent of the equipment cost.
NRU will host its 12th Customer Appreciation Picnic this August. Crowds of 500 or more people attend the annual event, which has featured displays of energy-efficient products and giveaways. Again this fall, the utility will collect holiday lights and exchange them for LED light strings.
Although city residents might not find Darrow in the office for a while yet, they will likely continue to see him around town. “To sit down, take a tour, have a conversation, nothing beats that. I’m really proud of our commitment to meeting with people,” Darrow said.
This Member Spotlight originally appeared in the July 2013 Power Report newsletter.