March 02, 2022
Cuba City: Steady growth and the support of a local utility
This article was first published by MEUW in Live Lines, Volume 71, Issue 3.
A place worth visiting
Cuba City, nestled among the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, is the essence of small-town charm. Located minutes away from the college town of Platteville, Cuba City is best known as the “City of Presidents.” Visitors driving through will notice patriotic shields attached to the decorative streetlights lining Main Street, each featuring a president of the United States, the president’s home state, and term in office. In October of 2004, George W. Bush became the first sitting president to visit and deliver a speech in Cuba City, where he also took the time to sign his own shield.
In 2021, Cuba City’s Presidential Plaza Visitor’s Center, a public place dedicated to the railroad that once passed through town, earned the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Main Street Program Award for Downtown Innovation, and later that year Cuba City was recognized for the second time with an award of Top Rural Development Initiative from Wisconsin Rural Partners.
According to Cuba City Economic Development Director Bob Jones, the awards resulted from residents of Cuba City voicing their desire for a more vibrant downtown gathering space. Many local organizations worked together to revitalize the downtown area, specifically the Presidential Plaza. Organizations involved included the Cuba City School District, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Cuba City Telephone, the City’s Downtown Task Force, AARP Community Challenge Grant Program, and City of Presidents Committee, as well as several private businesses. The successful Main Street project came to fruition during the pandemic.
The project included new landscaping, seating, ADA-compliant walkways, free Wi-Fi, an outdoor sound system, games, and a unique, interactive ground mural of the Mississippi River. All of it was accomplished without the use of city funds.
It is clear that Cuba City residents take pride in Main Street, which can boast that none of its storefronts sit empty. An average of 5,200 vehicles drive through the town each day.
What’s in a name?
Visitors often ask the shops and restaurants lining Main Street about the origin of the name Cuba City. So often, in fact, that many businesses display a sign to explain where the name came from. Historical records describe the first settlers arriving to the area before Wisconsin became a state. Later, in 1875, three men collectively contributed $60,000 to finance a local railroad station. Doing so would necessitate choosing a name for the community. One of the three men building the station had acquired his fortune after mining the Yuba River in California, and therefore named the town Yuba. Years later, it was discovered another town in Wisconsin was also called Yuba, and the name progressed to Cuba. Finally, due to several other places named Cuba, the name Cuba City was born.
A small town with a big sense of community
Today, Cuba City is known as the kind of community where people stop and say hello to one another, and employees of the municipally owned utility are on a first-name basis with most residents. The community’s small-town spirit is founded in part on its strong traditions. Each year, Cuba City Light & Water celebrates the community by hosting a customer appreciation event at the Veteran’s Park, which includes a picnic lunch served by utility employees as well as prizes for attendees.
George Morrissey, director of public works with Cuba City Light & Water, notes that the community’s tightknit nature is embodied in the mutual respect and support among residents and utility workers. Morrissey shared, “If someone needs help, the community is always there. This spirit is also reflected in the utility’s response to outages and the social needs of the community.
The utility serves the community in a variety of ways beyond powering the town. A big supporter of the local education system, the utility delivers an opportunity for high school students to receive a scholarship to help them continue their education. Local foundations are also recipients of the utility’s generosity, and the utility often donates to various causes. Cuba City Light & Water supports the local newspaper through advertisements, and focuses on keeping money in the area. For a small community like Cuba City, these efforts make a real difference.
And those streetlights featuring the presidential shields? They are also lighting Cuba City with less power and more cost savings, as the utility is on track to replace all of the streetlights with energy efficient LED bulbs by the end of 2022.
Cuba City may be home to just over 2,000 people, but the utility staff led by Morrissey demonstrates how smaller, locally owned public power systems deliver big benefits for those they serve.
Leading the way
Morrissey has served in his current position since 2014, and was previously employed for 17 years by another public power utility, Shullsburg Electric Utility. In his current role, Morrissey is responsible for all aspects of public works such as streets, parks and recreation, zoning and planning, code enforcement, duties related to economic development, and managing the water, wastewater, and electric utilities. With decades of experience, Morrissey firmly believes that a successful utility business needs to have a suitable workforce, supplied with appropriate equipment and training, in order to properly care for the communities they serve — and he is committed to leading by example.
Actively involved in all things utility-related, Morrissey dedicates a portion of his time and energy to serve as president on the MEUW Board of Directors. Collectively, utilities belonging to MEUW distribute more than 11 percent of the electricity powering Wisconsin. Morrissey is doing his part to help ensure that residents, farms, and businesses across the state have access to safe, reliable, affordable electric service.
In addition to his work with MEUW, Morrissey is an active member of the WPPI Energy Board of Directors and has been for the past eight years, where he represents Cuba City and acts in the best interest of the membership. WPPI Energy is member-owned and member-led, so meaningful participation has a real impact on the joint action agency. Morrissey is also an advocate for public power, and has attended several of the annual legislative rallies organized by the American Public Power Association (APPA).
While supporting public power at the state and national levels, Morrissey still takes time to ensure the needs of his community are being met, with no job considered too small. Residents may even catch him behind a snowplow on cold, snowy days. Morrissey summed it up best himself when he said, “The fact that we are a smaller community actually translates to a bigger sense of community… this adds to the personal touch that we take pride in here at the utility.”
Relying on the strength of a local utility
Founded in 1900, Cuba City Light & Water provides electric service to 1,130 electric customers. With a load of about five megawatts, the utility’s retail sales totaled $1.95 million in 2020. Cuba City Light & Water employs six dedicated staff members and is governed by a five-member utility commission.
The utility staff of Cuba City Light & Water is highly focused on safety, and their efforts in this area earned the utility the MEUW Safety Achievement Award in the spring of 2021. Earning this award, which is based on safety performance, requires dedication on the part of the utility and its staff to follow safety rules, use safe work practices, and watch out for one another. MEUW has been awarding this safety recognition to Wisconsin utilities for more than a decade.
“Our staff live and work right here in Cuba City, and getting them home safely is my main priority,” Morrissey said. “Because of this, we dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to safety training, and it was nice to see those efforts recognized by MEUW.”
To enhance response time and ensure reliability remains consistent, the utility invested in significant improvements to electric equipment over the past few years. Upgrades include a new bucket truck, service truck, and the replacement of industry-specific tools.
With its eyes on ensuring a reliable system to meet future growth in Cuba City, the utility is also in the process of performing a system conversion from 2,400 volts to 7,200 volts. Currently, the utility has two substations. With the increased voltage, at least one of the substations will also require an upgrade. Whether the second substation will be upgraded or eliminated is still to be decided.
The community’s largest employers include agriculture plants, an injection molding plant, and the school district. Cuba City is in the final stages of developing a new subdivision, which will bring an additional 20 homes to the area. While not a large number for some cities, this is considered good and steady growth for the area.
Into the future
Much has changed since 1880, when Cuba City comprised just 48 residents and a promising railway station, but the community’s character and spirt remains the same. Today, as Cuba City continues its steady growth, and with residents, businesses and local leaders as passionate as ever about working together to continue building on this solid foundation, the community’s future is exciting to envision.
What will the next 140 look like for the City of Presidents? How many shields will be added to the streetlights, and whom will they feature? And what new initiatives will the community pursue? The possibilities are yet unknown, but whatever comes next, the community is certain to take it on together.
Planning a visit? Don’t miss these Cuba City events
Visitors interested in exploring the community’s small-town vibes for themselves should consider getting the full experience by attending the community’s Truck and Tractor Pull over Father’s Day weekend in June. Another option is to visit over the summer and check out the Community Market held every third Wednesday, featuring Vesperman’s Ice Cream, VFW pies, local produce, meats, and arts and crafts.
Additional noteworthy events held in Cuba City’s scenic downtown area include the Christmas Glow Celebration, Small Business Saturday, and a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Visitors may also decide to just come and enjoy a day of golf at the Cole Acres Golf Course.