Bialecki bids farewell to mayor’s office
Tuesday evening, Bill Bialecki’s eight-year tenure in the Merrill mayor’s office officially came to a close as he turned the keys over to newly elected Derek Woellner.
A city resident for a majority of his life – having moved to Merrill with his family from Milwaukee at age 7 – Bialecki built his adult life around service to others. Following graduation from Merrill High School with the class of ‘65, Bill enlisted in the US Army. Nearly half of his military career was spent deploying on multiple tours to Vietnam, first as an infantry radioman and then later as an Air Defense crew member. After completing his final tour of duty in 1969, Bialecki finished out his active duty enlistment and returned to Merrill where he served for a year as a National Guardsman. In 1970, Bialecki began his career in the electrical field, which would span nearly 40 years. In 1977 he completed a five-year Electrician’s Apprenticeship at NTC, and would go on to serve in various capacities within the trade including contractor and eventually a supervisor; retiring in 2008.
His first step into local politics came in 2000, when he served for two years as District 1 Alderman. It was in 2010, when Bialecki threw his hat in the ring in a mayoral bid, eventually prevailing over then-incumbent mayor Patsy Woller.
“I wanted to see some things change in the city, especially the blight problem,” Bialecki explains of his decision to run for the mayoral seat. “The city hadn’t done anything in terms of economic development in several years. Businesses had left and nothing came in to replace them. As a result we had blighted property of all types from one end of the city to the other, that was de-valuing the city’s property tax base. We had rundown industrial properties such as Anson-Gilkey and Page Milk, that hadn’t been used in years. We had similar issues with commercial and residential properties around town that were just falling apart. After spending nearly 40 years working in the electrical and construction trades, and working with local governments all over the country, I felt I could bring some of that knowledge and experience to the table and do my part to spur growth and development. I was also two years retired and had the time to devote to the position. I invested full-time effort into a part-time position.”
In looking back, Bialecki fondly cites several accomplishments he is quite proud of and attests to his sincere desire to pursue development in the city, including; negotiating the development of Los Mezcales Restaurant and facilitating a partnership between restaurant owners and property owner Gary Schwartz, acquiring the Merrill Festival Grounds from the county, the Bierman Family Aquatic Center, a new centralized home for the Merrill Fire Department, development of the River Bend Trail, development of the Rock Ridge Apartment complex, development of Nortrax and the new Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Bialecki quickly cites the establishment of a TIF program and associated districts, as another key accomplishment.
“To date, the city has awarded $3.6 million in TIF incentives to encourage development and we have increased our tax base by approximately $26 million in return,” Bill adds. “I think that’s quite an accomplishment.”
Bialecki cites the agreement with California-based Sierra Pacific Windows, and the company’s subsequent success in Merrill, as a prime example of the city’s TIF incentive program at work. “We not only offered them a TIF incentive to come to Merrill, but also offered a forgivable loan if they were to create at least 75 jobs in their first three years. They actually created 100 jobs in the first 18 months! To date, they have brought a total of 125 jobs to the city.”
On the flip side, Bialecki has certainly experienced his share of challenges in his mayoral tenure.
“I think the most challenging time for me as mayor came pretty early,” Bill adds with a smile.
The 72 year-old father of nine and grandfather of three, is referring to the devastating EF3 tornado which struck the city on April 10, 2011, and inflicted nearly $11 million in damage.
“I don’t think anyone will ever forget that day… I know I certainly won’t,” he explains as his smile fades.
What would become the strongest tornado ever recorded in Lincoln County history, arrived around the time most families were sitting down for dinner.
The tornado ravaged the Town of Merrill as well as the city’s industrial park, causing significant damage to local manufacturers. Northern Wire and Lincoln Wood Products were two of the hardest hit employers, along with Merrill Millwork, Russ Davis Wholesale and the NTC-Merrill campus. The MARC also sustained considerable damage as well as residences and businesses in the Town of Merrill.
“To this day I am thankful the twister came on a Sunday afternoon, if it hit us during the week when our manufacturing employers were fully staffed, we could have been looking at a mass casualty incident,” Bialecki said. “That evening was rough, but we made it through. It really showed what our community is made of, people came together to help their neighbors. Rescue efforts were immediately underway to help those who may have been trapped or without food or shelter. Over the next few days, people showed up from all over the state and even the country to volunteer and help our community bounce back.”
The aftermath of the 2011 tornado revealed some areas of improvement for the city.
“We learned a few things from the storm, I think the most important lesson of all was the need for improvement to our communications infrastructure,” Bill said,
Ensuing improvement efforts included new radios for members of the Merrill Police Department, upgrades to the city’s early warning system as well as improvements to cellular service towers within the city.
Despite the destruction and emotional toll left in the wake of the storm, as Bialecki explains the ultimate silver lining came in the form of an investment and steadfast resolve on behalf of Northcentral Technical College.
“I will never forget the partnership I helped facilitate with NTC and President Dr. Lori Weyers. Prior to the tornado of 2011, NTC had a 10-year plan to build here in Merrill. But following the tornado and the damage to our NTC campus, Dr. Weyers and the NTC board made up their mind to rebuild and go all-in.”
The end result of their endeavor was the new Public Safety Center of Excellence located at 1603 Champagne Street.
The first phase of the campus was completed in early 2012, followed by the addition of an emergency vehicle driving course, burn tower and tactical firearms range. Most recently, a CDL driving course was added to the Merrill campus.
“Law enforcement and fire agencies from all over the country and all over the state, now come to Merrill to train and learn,” Bialecki adds, “This also makes a huge impact for our local hospitality, food and lodging businesses. It’s a win-win all around.”
In looking back on what he will miss most of his mayoral tenure, Bialecki cites both personal and professional relationships he has fostered over the years.
One such relationship he mentions, is that with the Bierman Family Foundation.
“I’ll never forget the day I first spoke with Mr. Bliese from the Bierman Family Foundation,” he adds. “He came to my office and asked simply what the foundation could do to contribute to the city. Helping Merrill become a drug-free community had always been a passion for me, so I suggested the idea of working to get a K9 program started for the Merrill Police Department. The generous donation from the Bierman Family Foundation was instrumental in facilitating the first-ever K9 unit for the Merrill Police Department. Their support will never be forgotten, I am personally, very grateful!”
In terms of advice for his successor, Mayor Woellner, Bialecki lists education first and foremost.
“My first year in office was a learning experience and I would encourage Mayor Woellner to keep his ears and eyes open. I would encourage him to take his time over the next several months and learn.”
As for the future, Bialecki has no intention to make another run for the mayor’s office and looks forward to continued service as District 1 Supervisor on the Lincoln County Board,
“I’ve enjoyed my time serving as your mayor and I certainly plan to stay involved in the community,” he said. “I would like to thank everyone for their support over the years, not only for me as your mayor, but for this wonderful community.”