March 14, 2023
Algoma is a great community on a Great Lake
This article was first published by MEUW in the Live Lines newsletter, Volume 72, Issue 3.
Perched on the shore of Lake Michigan along the lower thumb of Wisconsin, Algoma is a small city of just over 3,000 residents. Lake Michigan is the fifth-largest lake in the world, and Algoma has a front row seat. Due to its expansive shoreline and numerous beaches, Lake Michigan is often referred to as the third coast of the United States after the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. One of those many beaches, Crescent Beach, is located right in the heart of Algoma.
The Crescent Beach Boardwalk is an appealing draw for tourists. With its soft sand, numerous benches, breathtaking lake views, and proximity to the Algoma Pierhead Lighthouse, it’s easy to see why people are moved to visit the area. The red steel tower that makes up the lighthouse was built in 1908 to replace a white wooden structure erected in 1893, and was operated by lighthouse keepers until it became automated in 1973. The still-operational lighthouse does not offer tours but remains an iconic element of Algoma’s shoreline.
Fun fact: Lighthouse keepers were sometimes referred to as wickies, due to their duty of attending and trimming the light’s wicks.
Algoma has over 30 Airbnb’s to choose from, hosting many tourists throughout the year. Most travelers come from Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota, with many repeat visitors returning year after year. One of the most popular activities available is sport fishing. Fishing charters boast of Algoma as one of the Great Lakes’ best fishing ports, with the waters known for lunker lake trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, and king salmon.
Just blocks from the lake, visitors can enjoy a unique experience in the artsy downtown area. Summer months feature Friday night art walks. According to the chamber of commerce, “Every first Friday of the month, Algoma’s historic downtown businesses open their doors for an evening of art exhibitions ranging from nationally recognized contemporary ceramics to raku firings and local photography. Sip local wine from Wisconsin’s oldest winery as you visit each gallery and the variety of sidewalk pop-ups that may include emerging artists, clothing retailers and food trucks. After 8 p.m. it is common for artists, attendees, gallery owners and members of the Algoma community to gather at local establishments for food, drink and conversation.”
What about Wisconsin’s aforementioned oldest licensed winery? Von Stiehl Winery was established in 1967 by Dr. Charles “Doc” Stiehl, the local physician, who filed for the state’s first winery license and started selling the first official Door County cherry wine. Overlooking the Algoma Harbor, von Stiehl Winery is now open year-round, offering 40 varieties of wine.
Wine, art, and fishing aren’t all that Algoma has to offer. The city is also home to many companies offering great local job opportunities.
Multi-Color Corporation, a global supplier of premium label solutions, has a location in Algoma. Printing pressure-sensitive labels, the organization creates labels for anything from food and beverages to healthcare, automotive, and laundry products.
CTI Hospitality is another big employer in Algoma. A national millwork and casework company, CTI Hospitality focuses on interior packages for hotels. Products include front desk and lobby areas, bars, fireplaces, breakfast buffets, food prep stations, and more.
The Algoma Net Company adds to the area’s diverse employment market. The company creates high quality hammocks and outdoor furniture with wood and powder coated steel frames.
Powering these great organizations is locally owned, not-for-profit Algoma Utilities. Providing electricity to Algoma residents and businesses since 1904, the utility is dedicated to the community it serves. Energy Services Manager Markie Bscherer shared that local businesses will often reach out to the utility when seeking information regarding upcoming projects, bill questions, changes in energy usage, and other concerns.
Algoma Utilities General Manager Pete Haack said, “Luckily, we have Markie to guide them through funding possibilities for new projects, and to discuss any questions they have on bills.”
Being served by a municipally owned utility, with employees who live and work in the area, comes with distinct advantages. The employees at Algoma Utilities are part of the life of the community and are invested in its future. They want the best for the people and businesses they serve.
Haack joined the utility in 2000, with Office Manager and Accountant Nancy Johnson starting one year earlier in 1999. With each possessing well over two decades of experience at the utility, they have developed an expert understanding of its operations and are highly capable at anticipating and meeting the community’s needs. Algoma Utilities will celebrate 120 years in 2024, and Haack and Johnson will have been there to witness one-sixth of the utility’s history firsthand.
Johnson recalls that Algoma was one of the founding members of WPPI Energy, a not-for-profit wholesale power supplier formed in 1980 — twenty years before her time with the utility began. Neighboring communities of Sturgeon Bay, Two Rivers, and Algoma got together to “get the ball rolling” toward creating the joint action agency. The relationship between the three communities runs deep.
In fact, the rock upon which Algoma’s lighthouse stands came from Sturgeon Bay, back when the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1908.
Johnson is the first to acknowledge that her municipal utility expertise comes as the result of decades of focused learning. As a newly hired Algoma Utilities employee, she joined MEUW’s Customer Service and Accounting Committee to gain more insights into the industry. It turned out to be a symbiotic relationship, and Johnson continues to serve on the committee to this day.
Johnson also earned her management certification through MEUW. “It was enlightening. The coursework helped me see that everyone at each of the utilities is dealing the with same things, regardless of the size of the utility. Obtaining my management certification was a chance to share ideas and meet peers in the industry, and it made me feel connected.”
That sense of connection is a theme that is echoed in the relationship between the utility and the community of Algoma. The utility aims to serve and support residents and businesses as best it can, and one of the ways it does so is through supporting the local school district.
Algoma Utilities helped the high school add 150 kilowatts (kW) of solar panels through a WPPI Energy grant for non-profit organizations. An additional 9.75 kW was added at the elementary school in 2021.
“Installing solar panels at the local schools is beneficial to students in so many ways,” said Bscherer. “It lowers the cost of the school electric bill paid for by Algoma’s citizens, and it also gives the kids a chance to learn about renewable energy. We provide online tools for them to measure how much energy is generated by the solar panels, and they can see the impact sunny days have on its capabilities. With energy being such an important part of our future, it’s a great opportunity to get students interested in potential careers available in the energy industry.”
A big supporter of education, Algoma has offered scholarships since Haack and Johnson began working at the utility at the turn of the century. The utility has donated the children’s book, “If I Were a Lineworker” to the area’s library and schools, and often arranges live theatre events to teach young students about energy through the National Theatre for Children.
One of the utility’s most anticipated offerings of the year, however, is the coloring contest held in celebration of Lineworker Appreciation Day in April. The event provides an opportunity for Algoma’s youngest residents to thank the Algoma Utilities lineworkers who keep reliable power flowing to the community.
The four lineworkers also have responsibilities with the water department. Lately, they and the utility’s dedicated water operator have been busy repairing and replacing the more than 100-year-old water system. While Algoma’s existing water infrastructure sees an average of only three breaks per year, the utility is committed to updating the system before reliability can become an issue.
Like other small utilities, the employees of Algoma Utilities wear many hats. The water operator also acts as the utility’s water and electric meter technician, and the foreman is also a licensed water operator. In addition to the above staff, the utility employs a billing clerk, utility clerk, and part-time customer service clerk.
Algoma Utilities is working to update its 1,600 water meters and 2,200 electric meters with advanced metering infrastructure. The utility has replaced about a quarter of both, but like most utilities, is now experiencing long lead times for necessary materials. Haack shared that even cutouts and wires are showing a 40-week lead time.
“It’s making it more difficult to keep projects on track,” Haack said. While the replacement project is being held up, the utility is reading usage from both the old and new meter technologies at the same time, which is not without challenges. “It’s a problem we’re having to work through,” continued Haack.
As the challenges facing locally owned utilities continue to change over time, Algoma Utilities’ track record has proven that the public power model embraced by communities like Algoma will continue to thrive. With nearly 120 years of experience, and a steadfast commitment to delivering value for those it serves, the utility is well positioned for the coming century.
While the utility focuses on providing safe, reliable, affordable power to Algoma, the community can continue to look towards its growing future as both a great place to live and work, and a must-see tourist hotspot.