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Chamber embezzlement investigation continues

The former Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce treasurer has been under investigation since August for allegedly misappropriating funds from both the chamber and the Lord's Cupboard Food Pantry.

According to Chamber President Tammy Hastings and Park Falls Police Chief Jerry Ernst, the investigation is ongoing.

"There aren't any formal charges as of yet," said Ernst.

The treasurer, who has not yet been identified due to lack of official charges or arrest, allegedly embezzled $40,000 from the chamber alone, said Hastings, and around the same amount from the Lord's Cupboard pantry, which is located in Park Falls. Though there is no official total announced, Hastings said it is likely over $100,000 went missing from both organizations. The chamber is working with Forward Bank in this investigation.

Hastings said the chamber, along with the police department and the state Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), have been poring over the financial records.

She said that every single bill and financial record since 2019 disappeared.

"It's made it really hard," said Hastings. "We've spent literally, probably over 80 hours (searching for the records)."

Ernst said they continue to work with the city and the Lord's Cupboard, "to get a full grasp" on the total amount embezzled.

According to Hastings, the misappropriated funds were allegedly spent for personal shopping. These funds all came from money donated by businesses from local events, and membership dues.

Hastings said she was made aware that the former treasurer has been willing to comply with the investigation, but has not heard anything since.

"We are waiting for something to be done," she said.

The treasurer has been stripped of her duties as of August, and the chamber has been operating without an executive director since May 7. Kayla Myers is serving as interim treasurer. The chamber is now currently run by its volunteer board, and the office is shortstaffed.

However, Hastings is optimistic that the chamber will continue to thrive and communicate with its members. She said a new code of conduct was created, and "we have extremely active members."

A message was sent out to 187 businesses belonging to the chamber to assure them the organization is doing everything possible to keep their investments safe.

Ernst said it may be awhile before the case moves forward.


REMEMBERING...

Summer was exceptional for Sawyer businesses

The 2020 summer season was excellent for many Sawyer County businesses, but it's looking like the 2021 season was even better.

For proof, look at the county sales tax, the half-percent sales tax added to most retail purchases in the county. Revenue from the local tax is returned to the county.

For the season running from May 16 through Sept. 15, the sales tax generated in 2020 was $882,828.95. This year the sales tax accumulated for the same period surpassed 2020 by over $215,000, breaking the million-dollar mark for a total of $1,098,756.97.

Going back to the 2019 season, sales tax revenue generated was $804,788.69 or $293,000 less than the 2021 season.

"Through just observation, it has been a very good season," said Chris Ruckdaschel, executive director of the Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce. "I mean we've been extremely pleased with the number of visitors and tourists to the area throughout the summer, and that's been very good for business."

Ruckdaschel said he knew this summer was going to be special when in June during the Musky Fest a food vendor, one who has sold at 29 events, said for the first time ever he sold out all of his food.

"I've just been hearing everyone has had a great summer," said Sherry Beckman, executive director of Hayward Lakes & Visitor Convention Bureau. She said over the summer she noticed among the new faces several people who said they had once been to Sawyer County as a youth and were returning as an adult to rekindle a good memory.

"All indications are that this has been a very favorable season," said Mike Gardner, executive director of the Sawyer Country/Lac Courte Oreilles Economic Development Corporation. "Everybody had their head down, getting the work done all season, and maybe now they breathe a little once the dust settles."

Flat-out busy

Dave Jacobsen, owner of Nordic Northwoods, a retail store in downtown Hayward, said in his 47 years of doing business on Main Street this summer is one for the record books.

"It's been one of the busiest summers I've ever seen," he said. "It was flat out busy. I think it was good for everybody."

For Angie Velin, owner of Urban Trek, a thrift shop for high-end sportswear and business clothing, the issue was keeping up with demand.

"It was fantastic," she said. "We were basically trying to keep up. We had double the foot traffic (versus previous summers). We upped our game by doubling our inventory."

In September 2020 Jess MacLaughlin, one of the owners of Out of the Woods Winery, said he kept on waiting for the season to come to a close but people just kept on coming and coming through the doors. September 2021 was a repeat, but with even more people.

"It was amazing," he said. "It was busier than we could keep up with. Every day it was like almost as twice as busy as it was two years ago."

Business has been so good, the winery has purchased the building next door for wine storage and to add a few more tables.

"We couldn't keep up with demand this season," he said, "but by buying the place next door we will be able to warehouse our wines and triple production by having more space for storage."

Rentals in demand

Mike Best of Grand Pines Resort is in the vacation rental business. This season he had less the inventory than in 2020 because the real estate market is hot and those who might have rented their homes in previous summers have sold, but even with fewer homes to rent this season generated more sales for Best than in 2020, and it was all because of demand.

"There's way more people that want to come to the area and there are not as many vacation rentals available," he said.

David Thearin helps manage Northland Lodge for his father, Dick, and is president of the Quiet Lakes Resort Association.

"I haven't crunched the numbers for the year yet, but the way things have been going seems like since the pandemic we've been doing well," he said, "and talking to people around the area here, they've been doing well also."

Lorie and Tony DeJoode are owners of R&R Bayview resort. Tony said demand has been high for cabin rentals.

"This was one our best season we've had," he said.

"Last year was very good, too," Lorie added. She believes what has helped Sawyer County is that ever since the pandemic hit in 2020, more people in the Twin Cities have discovered that a short drive away is an awesome area to enjoy nature.

Tony said he's been surprised that many of the new customers had been to the county when they were kids and are now returning as adults.

"It was great," said Tony Nowak, owner of Lures of the North, a store that sells art prints and frames. "2020 was a record year for us, but so far for 2021 the sales are 25% ahead of 2020."

In 2020 nearly 1,500 new fulltime residents moved to the county, and many of them are buying art from Nowak to add an Up North aesthetic to their homes.


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