It’s hard to imagine what Rhinelander would be like had Richard Johns not decided to get into local politics almost five decades ago. In the time he’s been on the local political scene, Rhinelander’s mayor has left an indelible mark on the community, and there’s no doubt that it would be a very different place without him.
Mayor Johns is a man who knows how to get things done, and his success in doing so seems to tie in with the benevolent manner and lack of pretension that have made him popular. But he is quick to credit others he has worked with over the years for their roles in all that has been accomplished. “Without those people, it never would have worked,” he says. “They’ve had faith in me and I’ve had faith in them. We’ve had to work together.” He also credits Rose, his wife of 58 years. “If it wouldn’t have been for her,” he says, “I wouldn’t have stayed with it.”
When asked what he feels is his biggest accomplishment during his time in office, Mayor Johns considers the question for a moment, then replies, “One of the biggest, I think, is that I’ve worked well with agencies to make Rhinelander a better place to live.”
He’s been working well with others for quite some time. The story of his long political career began in 1964. One evening, he recalls, he was sitting at the Labor Temple bar then located on East Anderson Street with a couple of city aldermen. In a discussion about the candidates in an upcoming city council race, they suggested he run for office. “I thought, ‘I’ll throw my name in the hat and see what happens,'” Mayor Johns says. “And here I am.”
Back then, he explains, anyone who was on the city council was automatically a member of the county board as well. Johns was involved in a variety of projects, among them the construction of West Side Park. In those early years, it quickly became apparent to others that Rhinelander’s new councilman and county board member was a mover and shaker.
Back in the 1960s, the head of Rhinelander’s vocational system, Doc Rowe, told Johns he wanted Rhinelander to be in its own technical school district.
Because of its small population, Rhinelander was going to be assigned to the Wausau district in Wisconsin’s technical school system. “We were able to get a pilot project for liberal arts and technical education,” Johns recalls. That made Rhinelander eligible to be in its own district. Rowe drafted a proposal and Johns put it before the city and the county board. The proposal passed, laying the groundwork for the later creation of Nicolet Area Technical College under the direction of Tom Lawrence, who had taken charge of the project and was then chairman of the Oneida County Board of Supervisors.
Johns also chaired the county’s health committee, and around the same time as work on the vocational system was getting underway, he recalls, “Judge Richards called me and said we needed mental health services here. I said I’d work on it.”
He soon realized that Oneida County didn’t have a large enough population to obtain needed federal funds for a mental health services project. But if the populations of Oneida, Forest and Vilas counties were combined, that would be sufficient to obtain those funds. Johns approached the boards of Forest and Vilas counties and obtained resolutions from them that they would also be part of the effort to bring mental health services to the area.
His knack for obtaining grants resulted in the acquisition of funds for the Human Service building on East Timber Drive as well as a $500,000 grant for Koinonia Residential Treatment Center on East Winnebago Street.
Helping to create this system that provides mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and other services wasn’t the end of his commitment to ensuring that people had access to mental health care in the Northwoods. For 18 years, Johns chaired the Human Service system for the three counties.
His talent for collaborating with others and for landing funds has served him, and as a result, the community, very well over the years. Obtaining funds for improvements to the downtown area and drawing on his relationships with other officials for financing the city’s new sewage disposal plant are among the highlights Johns recalls during his tenure as mayor.
But even with all that behind him, he’s not resting. “We have things going on that I think are really go-ing to pay off,” Mayor Johns says. Rhinelander’s fire department began operating the ambulance service within the city in 2010, a move which has generated revenue for the city. With the opening of the Rennes Health and Rehab Center has come jobs, and the possibility of Kwik Trip coming to Rhinelander is ” a big issue for this community,” he says.
The opening of the Marshfield Clinic Rhinelander Dental Center in April 2012 is another plus. Along with former Congressman Dave Obey and the USDA Rural Development program, the city of Rhinelander worked to make the center a reality. The center serves all patients, regardless of their ability to pay, and as a result, more Northwoods residents have access to dental care.
Another boon to the local economy was the decision by Printpack, a major employer in Rhinelander, to expand their operations here instead of closing the Rhinelander plant and moving out of state. The quality of the workforce here was a factor in Printpack’s decision, and so was the ease of working with the city and county. The decision means jobs for Rhinelander and the new Printpack facility is coming along nicely. “We’re moving like you wouldn’t believe,” says Mayor Johns.
In February, voters approved a school referendum that authorized the School District of Rhinelander to exceed revenue limits designated by the state by $4 million per year for the next three years. It was a measure Mayor Johns supported, as he indicated in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Feb. 17, 2013 edition of the Star Journal. “Our local schools are a large part of the reason we have a skilled workforce,” he wrote.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The announcement in January that Wausau Paper Company intended to divest itself of its mills in Mosinee, Rhinelander and Brainerd, Minn., sent shock waves through the community and sparked much concern about Rhinelander’s economic future. A fixture in the community since 1903, the mill, owned by Wausau Paper Company, has employed generations of people and is a mainstay of the area’s economy. Then, on March 21, Wausau Paper announced that it is in negotiations to sell its specialty paper business to KPS Capital Partners LP, based in New York. The sale is based on several contingencies and isn’t expected to be final until the second quarter of 2013. Although the sale isn’t a done deal, so to speak, the news has been welcome in Rhinelander.
“If there’s anything that can be done by the city,” says Mayor Johns, “we’re willing to work with them.” He isn’t offering any speculation about what may or may not happen, however. He has learned, he says, that it’s often better not to push an issue. Instead, he counsels patience as Rhinelander residents watch to see what happens. Indeed, his own patience and tenacity over the years serve as an example.
“There are certainly going to be issues before our community,” he says. “I think with the work force we have and the area we represent, we’re in line to move slowly and cautiously through this whole mess and come out on top in the end.”