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The town philanthropy rebuilt

Reporter Alexandra Stevenson explains how Diane Hendricks has changed Beloit, Wisconsin.

A street view of buildings in Beloit, Wisconsin.
Downtown Beloit, Wisconsin.
LawrenceSawyer via Getty Images

If anyone’s in charge in Beloit, Wisconsin, it’s Diane Hendricks.

A billionaire and chair of the ABC Supply Company in Beloit, Hendricks has also distinguished herself as a philanthropist, pouring her fortune into remaking her adopted hometown. She has beautified it and brought jobs through new restaurants and a renovated office park for tech companies. But she’s also courted controversy as the biggest single donor to Scott Walker, the Republican governor of the state in 2011-’19, and as an outside adviser to President Donald Trump.

On this week’s episode of the Future Perfect podcast, we looked into Hendricks’s influence on Beloit, and Wisconsin. We talked to Alexandra Stevenson, a reporter at the New York Times who wrote a profile of Hendricks and her effect on Beloit. Stevenson described how Hendricks and her husband transformed the city, what it was like before their arrival, and what problems Beloit still faces.

We included part of our conversation on the podcast, but we thought the full conversation is worth a read too. So we decided to share it here, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dylan Matthews

How did you wind up going to Wisconsin for a story?

Alexandra Stevenson

My mom grew up in Beloit, and my uncle still lives there, on the outskirts. My husband and I went to visit him and my aunt for Thanksgiving in 2016.

One day he drove us around and he was super excited, talking about this billionaire named Diane who bought this building and who built this other thing and started an international film festival.

And my husband and I were like, “Who is this woman?”

So that’s how I got into it.

Dylan Matthews

Who is Diane Hendricks? What’s her deal?

Alexandra Stevenson

When I started researching her, I found an article that was sort of an “as told to” in the New York Times where she described her childhood and her background.

She grew up 200 or so miles away from Beloit on a dairy farm with eight sisters. At the age of 17, she got pregnant, so she had a short marriage, which brought her to Janesville, where she worked at the Parker pen factory, at the time a factory where women sat in long lines assembling fountain pens.

She divorced pretty quickly and was a single mother. At the age of 21, she decided to go into real estate and got her broker’s license.

Then she met a roofing contractor named Ken Hendricks, who she later married. He was kind of a plucky young guy, as she describes it. And they just started buying up these old houses, fixing them up, and renting them out in Beloit.

They got married in 1975 and pretty soon moved from buying up old houses to buying up old industrial spaces, which was their introduction to starting to buy up part of Beloit.

Byrd Pinkerton

What was it like when you actually met her?

Alexandra Stevenson

She’s quite an intense person to be in the company of because she’s very small, but she has these piercing blue eyes and she has this intensity.

When I met her, she was very warm. We got right into the fact that she’s not that well known. And as soon as I mentioned that, she just looked straight at me and said, “Keep it that way.”

And I’m sort of like, “Oh, okay. Well, I’m here to interview you for a story about you. So that’s going to be hard.”

She tells me, “I don’t like doing interviews.”

But then, pretty soon, she opened up and said, “Listen, I love Beloit, and this story is about Beloit. And I want to tell you about my interest and what I’m doing.”

Murals depicting Beloit’s industrial history on the exterior of the Ironworks complex, which has been redeveloped by Diane Hendricks’s company.
Mark’s Postcards from Beloit/Flickr

Dylan Matthews

Let’s talk a little bit about Beloit. What was it like in its industrial heyday, the ’50s and ’60s?

Alexandra Stevenson

Beloit was one of these towns that kind of revolved around one industry — or, I guess, two. So diesel engine-making and paper machine-making. There was a foundry right in the center downtown and that was the big employer, Beloit Corporation.

In the heyday, they employed more than 7,000 people in the foundry. But in 1999, the foundry went bankrupt.

But even before it went bankrupt, things weren’t going so well. A professor who had moved to Beloit in the ’80s to teach economics described the downtown to me as this really bleak landscape. Like, decayed, bombed-out buildings.

By the time that Diane and Ken started buying stuff, there was this big half-empty mall on the outskirts of town. There was a bankrupt country club. There was a rusting foundry. These are all things that they then bought.

Dylan Matthews

So walk us through how Diane started doing this transformation.

Alexandra Stevenson

I had the impression that it was almost like she and Ken were playing Sim City. Because she literally took the library from where it was downtown, and then moved it and put it inside the failing mall that was on the edge of town.

She replaced the performing arts center and revitalized it and changed it. She scooped up all these buildings — nearly every building on one block on Main Street — and knocked each of them down, and then put up a sushi restaurant, a high-quality burger joint, businesses, and modern apartments.

The Ironworks, which was the old foundry, was one of the major projects and one of the big things you see when you drive into Beloit now because it’s just so huge. She envisioned Ironworks as being this tech startup hub. And so she went about basically wooing entrepreneurs, big companies and venture capitalists.

And it’s worked.

I met with one venture capitalist who was like, “Frankly, I had no idea where Beloit was on a map.” And now he’s working out of the Ironworks.

There’s one red-brick building, I think it’s just apartments. But at the top, there’s etched in stone her name: D.M. Hendrix.

It’s just kind of interesting as you drive in because you’re like, “Mmm hmm. Right. This is the person who owns this town.”

Diane Hendricks
Diane Hendricks in 2015.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dylan Matthews

What did the people you met in town tell you about Diane Hendricks?

Alexandra Stevenson

She looms so large.

When you think about the fate of some of these towns that had a thriving industry, and that thriving industry suddenly died or dried up and the jobs disappeared ... Janesville was one of those places with GM. So was Beloit, with Beloit Corporation.

Diane now is very much the new Beloit Corporation. She’s the one making everything happen.

Everybody spoke very highly of her. And they looked up to Ken. [It] feels a little weird, only because it kind of cut across the political spectrum.

So, a little bit of context. When I went to Beloit in June of 2017, the political discussion on the national level was polarized.

So I kind of thought, “I’m going to this place in a state that had historically been very anti-Trump ... and then suddenly turned Trump. And Diane Hendricks was a huge Republican donor. In a lot of ways, people give her credit for having turned the state and gotten the people on the political side on board with Trump.”

I thought, going to Beloit, that depending on where on the political spectrum people stood, that they would feel very strongly for or against Diane. And it wasn’t at all that way.

Anybody I spoke to, whether they identified as Democrat or Republican, all felt the same way: that it was a huge deal that Diane had put so much money and time and effort into making Beloit a place that mattered, because for so long, Beloit didn’t matter to anyone.

Dylan Matthews

Hendricks is pretty vocally anti-union and has been a huge supporter of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to kneecap labor in Wisconsin. Did people bring up the role of unions much when you were talking about how the county changed?

Alexandra Stevenson

It’s really interesting, actually, because she was caught on tape a couple years ago asking Scott Walker to break up the labor unions. And he then introduced a bill that limited the ability of public workers to actually bargain over wages. And that set off these huge protests in the capital that lasted for weeks.

So you would think that would be something on the minds of a lot of people in Beloit. But it strangely was not something anybody brought up on their own.

I think maybe because a lot of the people that I spoke to were either early retirement or had started a small business, or they were working in a tech company in Ironworks, so it didn’t directly affect them.

Byrd Pinkerton

It is very easy, I guess, to look at what she’s done to these physical buildings, in contrast with larger political campaigns.

Alexandra Stevenson

When you change the way a place that you live looks and feels, it goes a long way in changing people’s perspectives and their sense of the place. And I think Diane really gave Beloit a facelift, right?

The thing is, though, one thing we haven’t really talked about is the fact that Beloit, on the one hand, has been changed dramatically on the surface.

But unemployment is still really high. It was very high when I visited relative to Janesville and neighboring cities, and that, I think, says a lot. It’s come down since, but it’s still higher than most places nearby.

And if you just hop in a car and drive a little south of the main strip where those fancy restaurants that Diane now owns are — the sushi place and the gourmet burger place — pretty soon, those new buildings turn to boarded-up shops.

When I reported the story, a quarter of the population was still living in poverty, which is twice the rate of the rest of Rock County. One in every four kids was living in poverty.

And these startups — a lot of the people who are working for them and working out of the Ironworks don’t actually live in Beloit. They commute from either nearby Wisconsin or just over the border.

So there’s still a lot of problems.

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