Yesterday, Steve Schultze of the Journal Sentinel reported that a Milwaukee County Board committee reversed its decision on extending the contract of longtime Veterans Park paddleboat company Juneau Park Paddleboats, owned by Val and Tim Ritter.
The reason? The Ritters have apparently been trying to sell Juneau Park Paddleboats, which they have owned and operated for 16 years, to Wheel Fun Rentals, a company they originally claimed was putting them out of business.
This spring, the Ritters' contract was not renewed by the Milwaukee County Parks Department; it was instead awarded to out-of-state company Wheel Fun Rentals. OnMilwaukee.com broke the story on April 3, and the response from our readers was overwhelming.
The Ritters claimed Wheel Fun Rentals was "basically writing a check for all the sweat equity we’ve put in and the client base we’ve established."
I have never before witnessed this level of feedback from a story, or seen the passion with which citizens responded in support of a local business.
On a personal level, it was something I cared a lot about. I believe our locally owned businesses are part of what makes Milwaukee an amazing city, and I hated the thought of entrepreneurs like the Ritters losing out to a larger corporation.
In short, it was all real fight-the-man-type stuff.
Buoyed by public support and backed by County Supervisor Jason Haas, Juneau Park Paddleboats was successful in extending its contract with the Milwaukee County Parks on May 16. At the time, they wrote on Facebook that they hoped to have paddleboats up and running by May 24.
Now, Tim Ritter told the Journal Sentinel that he and his wife are "exploring other options" (read: trying to sell their business to the competition) because the short length of the one-year contract extension was discouraging.
Understandably, a lot of people are feeling confused today – and maybe even a little taken advantage of.
The Ritters have not responded to my email asking for their side of the story. I understand a one-year contract extension isn’t exactly a booming vote of confidence and probably left them with a lot of uncertainty about the future. As businesspeople, I know they have to think about dollars and cents.
But that’s exactly what they accused the Milwaukee County Parks Department of doing in the first place – putting a cheaper out-of-state business before a local one. Putting money before civic pride. The community rallied behind the Ritters, and they should have had the confidence that their supporters would still be there in a year.
I hope this doesn’t sour anyone on the importance of activism in our community. Everyone who supported the Ritters did a good thing, and I understand if you’re feeling a little betrayed. But it doesn’t denigrate the nobility of sticking up for the little guy. Always keep doing that, people.
Added 5/28/13: The Ritters replied to my email over the weekend; I'll include relevant information here for those interested in hearing both sides of the story.
"We need to extend our sincere apologies to our supporters, our employees, family and friends, as well as social media and mainstream media outlets. We violated the trust and faith all these people placed in us and we tarnished our reputations in the community and amongst our family and friends," they wrote.
"We left the May 14th hearing exhausted and perplexed as to what resulted in the final decision of the Parks Standing Committee... while we were buoyed by the initial comments of the Standing Committee as they proposed several alternative solutions, in the end we received a one-year extension and we agreed to the one-year extension - even though that is not the result we had hoped for...what we should have done was asked the standing committee to afford us a day or two to think about their final proposal rather than accepting it on the spot. This would have afforded us the time to really assess the compromise decision reached by the Parks Committee and would have given us an 'out' in a responsible manner.
"Through our exhaustion and frustration with the whole process, unfortunately we viewed our success as a 'hollow victory' - in assessing the cost of adding a new building to operate for 2013, the lost weeks of operations due to the timing of the whole process, the 'adversarial' relationship we would have moving forward in dealing with the Parks Department."
Following the May 14 hearing, the Ritters received a call from Wheel Fun Rental owner Rodney Knight. They discussed the possibility of reversing the decision and letting Wheel Fun Rentals be awarded the contract.
"We suggested a monetary offer to walk away and decided we should give it some careful thought and talk in a couple of days," they said. "Apparently, after the May 14th conversation with Rodney Knight, his Regional Manager, Dwight Bratholt, who was in the car when we placed the initial call, took it upon himself to contact the Parks Department. The phone call from Dwight Bratholt is what set the wheels in motion for overturning the decision of the Board as it relates to Juneau Park Paddleboats and any subsequent rescinding of our initial offer was irrelevant and not a mitigating factor. The damage had already been done by the initial phone call from us to Rodney Knight...Again, we apologize to you as well as everyone who came to our aid, only to feel let down by our actions."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.