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Playing his own tune
Innovative Mellen music teacher making a mark

Sean VanZeeland stood next to a new student in his Mellen classroom and they began to play a song together on their handmade instruments.

Seventh grader Harrison Piff felt bad when he messed up one of the cords at the beginning of "Happy Birthday" on his one-of a-kind guitar, but Vanzeeland encouraged him to start over and they took it from the top.

A smile flashed across both their faces as they played the traditional song that could be heard across the hall.

It was a tune that VanZeeland almost never got to play.

Before the school year started, VanZeeland, 24, was working on a farm, harvesting tomatoes, when he received a text from his old Northland College professor about the Mellen job opening.

"I found a spot on the farm that had phone service," Vanzeeland said. "So I gave them a call to see what's up. They were super excited to see that someone was interested. There weren't too many applicants I don't think. (I) didn't really expect to get the job. I don't have a degree in it."

VanZeeland, whose degree is in geology, now is the sole music teacher for the roughly 300-student district that has had a tough time keeping the job filled. High turnover in the position has caused some students to lose interest in music, posing a challenge for the rookie teacher.

But in just a couple months, the Milwaukee transplant has re-vitalized the love of music in Piff and the rest his students.

"Things have been good, but exhausting," he said after taking a deep breath. "I've always been an active musician and have felt like I should pass that on. I'm happy to be doing it. I don't know how long I can sustain doing it all on my own."

Although the workload is stressful, VanZeeland takes pleasure in the little things that make the effort worthwhile.

"Every day there's a rewarding moment," he said as he looked around the giant classroom filled with all kinds of instruments, including the home-made versions he brought to the class.

One such moment: Four students in the high school band recently went to the University of Wisconsin-Superior for a tri-state music festival with 21 other schools. Every band had to learn a few songs and perform them together.

"Seeing my students perform was amazing. They were thriving in a way that I haven't seen before," he recalled.

Following their performance, the members were inspired to recruit more students and the band since has grown to 14.

To inspire his kids even more, VanZeeland one day brought in a fiddle he made out of two pieces of firewood; he challenged his middle school students to build their own instruments.

Students have made all sorts of music-making devices, but Piff took on the complicated process of making a guitar.

"I'm really excited about that for him," VanZeeland said.

Piff first drew a design for his guitar and then crafted it from wood from home. Wearing a Pink Floyd sweatshirt, the music fanatic said he likes to listen to rock and roll and country music, and that his favorite song, by Pink Floyd, is "Another Brick in the Wall."

Many students hadn't picked up an instrument in over a year because of the pandemic. VanZeeland has enjoyed seeing the light bulbs flick on in the students as they remember how to play.

And the instruction goes both ways. VanZeeland hasn't played some of the instruments his students play, so he'e learning from them.

"(I) think that's what's appealing them. I'm not coming in and telling them how to play your instrument. We're going to learn how to play it together," he said.

Although he is still new, VanZeeland has already made his mark, Superintendent Rhonda Elmhorst-Friemoth said.

"He is a wonderful addition to the school family. His enthusiasm and expertise have created an excitement that I haven't seen in quite awhile. We look forward to spending many years with Sean leading our music department," she added.

With most of his life still ahead of him, however, VanZeeland said he's being pulled in different directions.

"I know it would be good for them. And there are ways it would be good for me. But at the same time, I'm still very passionate about instrument building and would like to go to school for that, too. That's a big draw," he said.

Pigeon Lake Field Station inches toward sale





Residents on Pigeon Lake near Drummond are carefully watching and worrying about the possible sale of the stateowned Pigeon Lake Field Station — and what a sale could mean to their neighborhood.

For six years, the unused 90-acre property, which includes 1,750 feet of lakeshore on the 200-acre lake, has been eyed for sale by the state. Now Tom German, the head of Wisconsin's Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, says the state is taking preliminary steps that could lead to the sale of the property.

"They've been saying that for two years, now," said Mary Hayes, president of the Pigeon Lake Association homeowners group. "But it is possible. Mr. German is less than forthcoming about things, but I suppose that is typical of most state government people."

Residents who want to preserve the quiet, rustic nature of the lake worry about one thing more than any other: A developer who would come in and transform the station into a resort or other high-traffic destination.

"Our biggest fear is that the wrong owner comes in," Hayes said. "Whoever comes in, we would want them to respect the fact that this is a small, silent sport lake. It is not a wave-boat, speedboat, water-skiing lake. This is a lake where people want to kayak, they want to canoe, to fish. They want to enjoy the beauty that the Northwoods offers."

German said the board has been exploring sales since the University of Wisconsin-River Falls stopped using the property for environmental and arts programs in 2014. He said the board has focused keeping the property for public purposes.

"But we can't wait forever," he said. "We are trust managers and we have a fiduciary duty with respect to the trust assets and our beneficiaries. It doesn't appear that any sales to public institutions are on the foreseeable horizon, and the time is getting closer for us to explore a sale to any entity, including entities that would not keep the property open to the public."

German said the board is required by law to get a new appraisal before any sale; the property last was appraised in 2015 and valued at $1.325 million. A new appraisal won't be cheap, and the board is considering what it can afford. "But Pigeon Lake is certainly one of the properties we are looking at having appraised, and then putting it up for a bid auction or working out some kind of a transaction with some entity out there," he said.

Under state law, the appraised value would be the lowest amount the board could accept for the property, German said. He has not given up entirely on the hope of finding a public buyer for the property.

"But at the same time I have to be a realist and be also looking at additional options," he said.

In July of 2020, nearly 20 representatives of public and non-profit entities visited the property to determine if it suited their needs. And the number who came forward with serious proposals?

"Nobody," German said. "We had a lot of people there who were interested to various degrees, but unfortunately nobody came forward with a proposal for purchasing it or financing it."

Given that failure, the board must move toward selling a property that is not producing income to benefit the state's school trust funds, German said.

"A sale will be inevitable. The question is a sale to whom," German said. "I still have hopes that a public entity will step forward, but my expectations are beginning to drop."

With those fading hopes, German expects an appraisal to be ordered in spring. Once its results are in hand, a sale could proceed and with no public groups seeming to be interested, a private sale was "certainly one of the likely possibilities," he said.

Bayfield County Board member Fred Strand said he had his doubts that the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands would be able to sell the property, new appraisal or not. One issue is the fluctuating level of Pigeon Lake.

"Not too many years ago, that lake was almost dry. Now it's substantially over its banks," he said. "If you are a knowledgeable buyer are you going to take the risk that it will stay high, go back to normal or go low again?" he said.

Strand declined to guess what the future held for the land.

"I hope someone a lot smarter than me can figure out a good and appropriate use for the property," he said.

Fellow County Board member Steve Sandstrom said high water levels have threatened some of the field station's buildings, requiring them to be moved to higher ground, and rendered its sewage drain field unusable. That will be a problem for any redevelopment of the property.

"Nobody would buy a lot there, the way the lake level is now," he said. "Until we know what the lake level is going to do, I think there is not a whole lot that can be done."

Bayfield County has a large stake in the future of the former field station, said County Administrator Mark Abeles-Allison.

"Nobody has come forward; we don't have a plan," he said. "It's been years and it is only getting into worse condition because of its non-use. Something is going to have to be done about the parcel, and that is likely to be an open-market sale."

That said, Bayfield County isn't interested in buying the property. Not only is the price out of reach, but the costs of upkeep for the facility made the idea a non-starter, Ables-Allison said.

Sandstrom agreed that the county could not afford to acquire the camp.

"That's too bad, because it is a very special place," he said.

Bayfield County is charging up
Grants could bring more car stations to area



Not too long after an electric vehicle charger was installed at the Bayfield County Courthouse in Washburn, County Administrator Mark Abeles-Allison noticed a new Ford Mustang Mach E car parked there, sucking up volts.

He walked over to the couple whose car was being refueled and spoke with them for a bit.

"I didn't get their names but they told me that they were from Marquette, Mich., and they were on their way to Duluth," he said.

That's a 252-mile trip, a bit close to the distance the EPA says the car will travel on one charge — 302 miles — so having a charging station midway on the couple's journey reassured the couple. They had researched before starting the trip and finding the station in Washburn, they rerouted slightly for an hourlong stopover to recharge.

"They walked downtown for lunch and when they got back their car was charged and they were ready to go," Ables-Allison said.

It was a perfect example of what Bayfield County Tourism Director Mary Motiff predicted when the Washburn charging station was launched in September.

"This will be great, to be able to promote the area to people who have electric vehicles who haven't been able to travel here," she said when the first station was built. "I am hoping this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership and that we get more of them installed."

The barrier to installing more Level III stations: a pricetag of at least $50,000 each. But Motiff now has applied for grants that could allow the county to build several more stations — the gold standard for recharging electric vehicles, capable of charging a vehicle to 80% battery capacity in an hour or less as opposed to several hours for lower-powered Level I and Level II chargers.

That makes them popular with local electric car drivers as well as visitors.

Roger Aiken of Bayfield is delighted that Bayfield County now has a charging station he can use for a relatively quick charge for his 2019 Chevrolet Bolt.

He says the increasing number of stations is making an electric vehicle more practical — a trend worth encouraging.

"In a location like Bayfield County, that is forward-thinking," he said. "When you look at the numbers, 50% of the people who have property here don't live here full-time, and tourism is the largest component of our economy. There is nothing that creates more jobs or that has a bigger impact in the county than tourism."

That means visitors from urban areas, where electric vehicle use is increasing dramatically, are coming to expect charging stations when they take their cars — and their money — on vacation.

"People who can afford electric cars are going to be people who are going to visit here. They are going to want to drive their electric cars to places they can get to," he said. "It's going to happen. This technology is not a flash in the pan."

Motiff said the county can meet the increasing demand for chargers without a lot of local investment. State officials last month announced a $10 million grant program, using funds made available through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, to invest in tour ism-related capital projects. Motiff said the grants seem custom-made for additional local charging stations.

"I think there are going to be a lot of those stories," she said of the couple from Marquette. "They were thrilled they could come here, walk to town, do a couple of things while waiting, and spend some money in town."

But one station alone isn't sufficient for a tourism hotspot like Bayfield County, she said.

"To have one is great, but it still very limiting. To be able to attract people to the area, we have to be able to offer options to other parts of the county," Motiff said.

She would like to see Cable, Iron River, Port Wing, Cornucopia, Red Cliff, Bayfield, and possibly the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center host stations.

Motiff said a quick look at the map showing existing locations of Level III chargers makes it clear that the area is ripe for more. Almost none exist across northern Wisconsin.

"If we don't get the grant, it looks like with the new infrastructure bill there will be more sources for charging stations coming down the pike," she said.

Grant winners are to be announced in December, she said.


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