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Local
Waterloo Sears to close by early April

WATERLOO — A local department store is shutting its doors after seven decades of doing business as part of a larger nationwide closing of dozens of similar stores.

Sears, located at 2060 Crossroads Blvd. in Waterloo, is scheduled to close in early April, according to documents released Thursday by its parent company Sears Holding Company.

Sears Holding announced Thursday it would close 39 Sears stores and 64 Kmart stores nationwide by late March and early April. Kmart locations in Red Oak and Urbandale were also scheduled to be closed.

Employees were notified Thursday, according to the company.

The store manager of Sears Waterloo referred all questions to the public relations department of Sears Holdings. A voice mail message at that number referred reporters to the document of store closings.

“Sears Holdings continues its strategic assessment of the productivity of our Kmart and Sears store base and will continue to right-size our store footprint in number and size,” the company said in a statement. “In the process, as previously announced, we will continue to close some unprofitable stores as we transform our business model so that our physical store footprint and our digital capabilities match the needs and preferences of our members.”

The company also noted “eligible associates” would receive severance pay and “have the opportunity” to apply at remaining Sears and Kmart stores. The nearest ones were in Marshalltown and Cedar Rapids.

The company has been steadily closing Kmart and Sears stores — more than a quarter of its total — as it tries to stave off filing for bankruptcy. Many financial analysts, seeing Sears has been burning through more than $1 billion in cash annually since 2014, believe the company’s efforts are too little, too late.

The news follows the previous closing of the Waterloo Sears Auto Center in April 2017 and the Waterloo Kmart in January of 2017.

Sears opened at Crossroads on March 24, 1969, predating the opening of Crossroads Mall in 1970. It had previously been located in downtown Waterloo for decades as the Sears, Roebuck and Company, dating back to at least the 1940s.

The manager of the Waterloo Sears store in 2011 told The Courier his store was one of the top-performing stores in the country.


COURIER FILE PHOTO  

Bob Dorr plays harmonic and sings as frontman and founder of the Blue Band, now on their ‘Last Goodbye’ tour.


Local
It really is the 'last goodbye' for Bob Dorr & the Blue Band

CEDAR FALLS – Bob Dorr isn’t afraid to admit he’s a crier.

And why shouldn’t he be a little blue — and shed a few tears — as the 36-year run of one of the region’s most beloved bands comes to a rollicking close this month.

Dorr and the Blue Band will perform their “Last Goodbye Show” in their hometown area Saturday at the Waterloo Center for the Arts.

“I know there will be a few songs that necessarily I’ll cry. I’m a crier. John Boehner (the emotional former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) has nothing on me,” Dorr says, laughing.

Doors open at 6 p.m. The Blue Band will perform from 7 to 10:30 p.m. Cost is $5 per person at the door. Food and beverages will be available for purchase.

In many ways, it has been like a rolling reunion. Since early 2017, the band has been playing gigs in as many of its old haunts as possible. Blue Band alums have joined in performances, and Dorr and longtime guitarist-songwriter Jeff Petersen have reconnected with their fans, “the blue people.”

“That’s what we call them. The tour has been everything I hoped and planned for, and the crowds have been better than they have been in the past few years. I think people understand it’s the last connection with us. Some people who’ve seen us maybe once a year have come out three or four times,” Dorr said.

On occasion the 10-piece band has swelled to 14. “There’s nothing like standing up there with a four-piece horn section and two drummers. It’s fantastic. Wow! What sound,” he said.

The band leader, who celebrates his 66th birthday Jan. 12, started Bobby’s Blue Band when he was 29. His vocals and harmonica have anchored the band, and Dorr also has managed the business and production sides of the band’s gigs and recordings.

“I need to get back to the reason I was mesmerized by the magic of music. I no longer want to be the band leader of a 10-piece entourage,” Dorr said. “I’m so looking forward to having a little more distance from the business part and recapturing my passion for the music part. I like being able to step away … all of those things have nothing to do with playing harmonica and singing the songs. “

“The LAST Last Goodbye” shows are Jan. 12 and 13 at the Riverside Casino and Resort Show Lounge in Riverside. On Jan. 12, Dorr’s small bands will play along with sets by the Blue Band from 7:30 to midnight. Duke Tumatoe opens the show at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 13, and the Blue Band says goodbye from 9 p.m. to midnight.

An encore goodbye performance is part of the IPTV fundraiser at 6 p.m. Jan. 20 in Johnston. For ticket information, visit the IPTV website.

The original Blue Band was assembled in 1981 to fulfill contract obligations for Little Red Rooster following that band’s split. Former bandmate Molly Nova (bass/violin/vocalist) joined along with Petersen, and the band eventually evolved into Bob Dorr and the Blue Band, playing new songs and old hits.

Over the years, the band has opened for B.B. King, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Tower of Power and others. They’ve been an Iowa State Fair staple for more than three decades and performed at the Kansas City Jazz & Blues Festival and Bluestock Celebration in Memphis, Tenn.

Dorr launched Hot Fudge Records in his garage to record more than 25 Blue Band albums. In 2006, a two-DVD set was released by Iowa Public Television celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary. Dorr was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Association Hall of Fame in 2000 as a radio DJ at KUNI Public Radio for many years, and in 2007 he was inducted as leader of the Blue Band. He was into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.

Dorr keeps in touch with his disc jockeying roots as host for Iowa Public Radio’s “Backtracks,” “Blue Avenue” and “Beatles Medley” — all of which he records in his garage studio. He also helps host IPTV’s fundraisers.

Dorr confesses the Blue Band has been his baby. “Frankly, I’m a little scared that I’m not going to have my ‘kid’ around, but I like the empty nester idea. The mindset and memory I want to carry and remember is what we were all about.

“The flip side is I don’t want to even entertain any idea of keeping going with the band because I think it can only go backward and tarnish the memories that this whole goodbye tour has been about making.”

Dorr and longtime-friend Petersen are not retiring from music. They’ll perform as the Blue 2 and the Blue Trio with Blue Band bass player Doug Norton. There’s also Bob Dorr and the Iowa State All-Stars (aka The Limestoners), Blue Mississippi featuring Dorr, Petersen and members of Dubuque’s The Mississippi Band, and the Parlor City Jam Band, house band for the Parlor City Pub in Cedar Rapids.


Govt-and-politics
Boosting workforce skills a top priority for Iowa governor

DES MOINES — When she steps to the speaker’s podium next week in the Iowa House to deliver her first Condition of the State address, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will spend much of her time talking about ways to boost the credentials of Iowa workers without post-high school education or training.

Helping workers improve their skills will be a top priority of her administration in 2018.

The 2018 session of the Legislature, which begins Monday, will be the first since Reynolds took over as governor this past year.

“Probably my top priority is workforce (and) taxes, but it’s workforce, workforce, workforce. Because that provides opportunities for Iowans. It provides an opportunity for a better quality of life,” Reynolds said.

Since a 2012 state report indicated Iowa does not have enough qualified workers to fill middle-skill jobs, Reynolds, former Gov. Terry Branstad before her, and state lawmakers have worked on myriad programs to 

help workers obtain more education or training in order to obtain a higher-paying job.

The 2012 report, from the state workforce development department, said half of the jobs in Iowa require “middle skills,” but only a third of workers possess those skills.

Reynolds is pushing the state’s Future Ready Iowa program with the goal of 70 percent of the state’s workforce having post-high school education or training by 2025. Created in 2016 with a grant from the National Governors Association, the program promotes partnerships between educational institutions and businesses with middle-skill jobs.

Reynolds and legislative leaders said they regularly hear from employers that they have job openings but not enough skilled workers.

Reynolds hopes to include new funding for Future Ready Iowa in the state budget year that starts July 1. She did not specify how much she will propose, but suggested it will be in the millions of dollars. The new funding would help create grants and fund efforts to increase apprenticeships, foster public-private partnerships and more.

“That’s probably one of the biggest things that I can do to get this economy growing again,” Reynolds said.

Economists at Iowa State University dispute there is a shortage of middle-skill workers in Iowa. According to their analysis, the job openings actually are the result of insufficient salaries.

“First, when employers say there’s a skills gap, what they’re often really saying is they can’t find workers willing to work for the pay they’re willing to pay,” ISU economist David Swenson said in a 2015 report. “If there was a skill shortage, people would be working longer hours and workers would be getting higher wages. Researchers have yet to find that evidence in several categories where people are arguing that there’s a skills gap.”

Still, the governor’s efforts have support among legislative leaders, both Republican and Democrat.

“One of the things that Iowans are asking for is the ability to help them move their skill set up to the next level, to be able to build their career and increase their earning capacity for themselves and their families,” said Janet Petersen, the Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate.

While there is bipartisan support for the ends, there are diverging opinions about the means.

Reynolds will do what she can as the state’s chief executive to promote Future Ready Iowa, and plans to introduce funding for the program.

Republicans in the Legislature may not have the stomach for new program funding in what is expected to be a tight budget year.

“It seems like there might be a unique opportunity to actually implement at least some of those recommendations (from Future Ready Iowa),” said Linda Upmeyer, the Republican House Speaker. “They don’t all look like they are high-dollar items, and I think some of those things we can take resources and change up a program a little bit and redeploy it in a little more focused fashion. I’m optimistic we can get something done with that.”

Petersen and Mark Smith, the Democratic leader in the House, said the focus should be on funding for community colleges.

Advocates who would like to see a pay increase for Iowa’s minimum-wage workers likely will be disappointed. GOP majority leaders say they are focused on creating opportunities for those middle-skill workers, not the minimum wage.

“What I hear is employers are paying far above the minimum wage now,” said Bill Dix, leader of the Senate Republicans.

Every state that borders Iowa, except Wisconsin, has in recent years increased its state minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour.

During the 2017 legislative session, Republicans passed a law that stopped Iowa counties from approving their own minimum wage increases.

“Politicians like to talk big about improving wages, but last year the Legislature literally voted to lower wages,” said Matt Sinovic of the progressive advocacy group Progress Iowa. “With Iowa’s low unemployment rate, the problem isn’t a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of good-paying jobs and the workers to fill them. Raising the minimum wage would make it easier to keep workers in Iowa and boost the local economy. It’s time for Gov. Reynolds and Republicans in the Legislature to not only talk the talk, but take action to raise wages.”

Reynolds said she , would be willing to entertain a minimum wage increase if legislators approve one.


Local
Flu on the rise across the U.S., and about to hit Iowa

CEDAR FALLS — Dr. Claudia Vicetti is seeing a lot of sick children right now — and thinks she’ll see more as January wears on.

That’s because flu season — with all of those coughing, sniffling and feverish kids — usually doesn’t peak until February, and the rest of the country is seeing a spike in flu cases that hasn’t yet made it to Iowa.

“I think — from what I’ve been hearing from colleagues out of town — it seems like people are starting to see serious complications from influenza,” Vicetti, a pediatrician at UnityPoint Clinic Pediatrics in Cedar Falls, said. “We might not have seen it yet, but we’re starting to see more of these severe cases across the country.”

What Vicetti has been hearing is in line with the data on flu cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The red states show where flu activity is high, while the green areas — like Iowa — show where only low or minimal flu activity has been detected in the week ending Dec. 23, 2017.

The CDC’s latest report, for the week ending Dec. 23, showed most of the country with a high amount of flu cases, while Iowa has low or minimal flu activity. And Iowa is one of only a handful of states not yet experiencing “widespread” influenza activity.

The brown areas show where the flu is widespread, while the orange areas — like Iowa — show where only regional flu activity has been detected in the week ending Dec. 23, 2017.

Nonetheless, the Iowa Department of Public Health noted in its latest report influenza activity “continues to increase” statewide. On Friday, it said flu deaths were "on the rise," with six deaths so far attributed to the virus -- one of those in northeast Iowa. The average age for those deaths was 86 years old, with three of the six having "underlying conditions or contributing factors" in addition to the flu.

Seven schools have reported more than 10 percent of students out with illness, and five long-term care facilities have reported flu outbreaks to the state health department.

At UnityPoint's hospital and clinics, 921 cases of influenza were seen in 2017, compared to just 300 cases in 2016. For the months of November and December, 158 cases were diagnosed in 2017 compared to just 13 the previous year, suggesting a flu season that already started off much stronger.

Iowa Influenza Report - Week 51

But it’s not inevitable that the flu virus will hit us all. For one, Vicetti said news reports claiming the influenza vaccine is only 10 percent effective against this year’s flu are inaccurate.

“That’s based on data from Australia for the previous season,” she said. “I don’t know if that holds true for us now. Last year in the U.S., (the effectiveness of the vaccine) was closer to 35 to 40 percent.”

Vicetti advised everyone over the age of 6 months old to get vaccinated if they hadn’t already. Specifically, the majority of the population being inoculated prevents deaths in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

“If I can prevent you from dying from flu or preventing ICU care, that to me is enough,” she said.

If the flu’s already hit — you’ll know if you have a fever, fatigue and muscle aches as well as respiratory symptoms like a cough or congestion — the best thing to do is stay home from work or other activities, or keep your children home from school, to prevent its spread.

“It’s best to keep them out of school until they’re fever-free, and then teaching them how to cover their cough and sneeze to prevent the infection spreading,” Vicetti said.

This story was updated Jan. 5, 2018, with the latest numbers from IDPH and UnityPoint.