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Randolph Car Wash opened in 1967, to serve the public and to clean the cars across the street at Randolph Oldsmobile.

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Sign of the times: What happened to the Randolph Car Wash sign

The sign had already been standing on its three long legs for a decade by the time Tom Nebelsick joined Randolph Car Wash, and that was more than 40 years ago.

The top section — Randolph in red neon, Car Wash in colored panels — used to revolve. The three-sided clock below used to tell the time to those stopped at the corner of 21st and N streets.

Before it disappeared, the sign became a fixture on the east edge of downtown, a symbol of his family’s business.

“It was near and dear to my heart,” Nebelsick said last week. “A lot of people have inquired about that sign.”

The car wash had opened in 1967 to clean the cars at the dealership across the street to the east, at Randolph Oldsmobile, owned by Nebelsick’s grandfather, Floyd Randolph.

But the long, brick building on the corner also served the public, and the public couldn’t miss it. Separate from the sign, eight pillars towered above the building itself, with more backlit blocks spelling out Randolph Car Wash.

Tom Nebelsick kept the equipment working and his wife, Nadine, kept the books. Over the course of four decades, they figured they gave jobs to maybe 400 employees, mostly young workers.

They sprayed and scrubbed and rinsed and vacuumed and detailed interiors. And they worked year-round, because here’s something most people don’t realize about car washes, Nebelsick said: They’re busier in the winter than in the summer.

“I’m proud a lot of kids got a chance to do some hands-on, honest work that served the needs of the community,” he said. “But there was quite a bit of turnover; it was not easy work.”

Change came gradually at first. Randolph Oldsmobile was sold to Williamson Honda, which later sold the land to the city and moved south. The neon Randolph stopped revolving. The clock stopped telling time, and the wind blew its hands off.

It had just become too difficult to maintain, Tom Nebelsick said. “But we kept the lighting going on it.”

Then change came quickly. Speedway Properties and Nelnet announced plans to replace this industrial fringe of downtown with the $50 million Telegraph District.

The massive makeover includes the construction of 14 buildings — and the remodeling of nine — to create 650,000 square feet of new offices, apartments, condos and shopping space.

And the two companies needed the car wash site, which had become a valuable piece of property. Last summer, Nebelsick made an announcement on Facebook.

“We are shutting the garage doors for the last time,” he wrote. “This is the end of an era and we thank Lincolnites for their patronage over the years.”

That was in June. But he kept returning to 21st and N, and he kept posting photos of the slow dismantling of the business.

And he shared plenty of pictures of the sign.

In December, he posted a photo of a crane easing the sign down, uprooted for the first time in more than 50 years. He wrote: “Maybe one day we’ll see it again.”

Maybe he will.

The new owners of the old car wash put the sign in storage, said Nelnet spokesman Ben Kiser. He didn't provide details, but they ultimately hope to return it to the neighborhood, a sign from its earlier time.

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US farmers fear Trump's assault on WTO

GENEVA — Donald Trump's attack on the World Trade Organization has U.S. farmers worried that the president's "America first" foreign policy approach will hamstring efforts to defend their interests.

The U.S. is strangling the ability of the WTO, which oversees the rules for nearly $23 trillion in commerce every year, to resolve disputes among its 164 members. But when the WTO's appellate body becomes incapacitated later this year, even the U.S. cases, of which there are at least two pending meant to protect American agriculture, would be derailed.

"The entire global trading system and the WTO dispute-resolution process have been good for U.S. agriculture," Ben Conner, the vice president of policy at the Washington-based U.S. Wheat Associates, said in an interview. If the two U.S. claims are appealed, they "could be among the first to get stuck in legal limbo without a functioning appellate body," he said.

Agriculture has become a contentious political issue given Trump's strong support in farm states, as global players such as China and the European Union use their huge consumption of American commodities as leverage in trade negotiations. The trade war has led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to predict that farm exports will fall by $3 billion in 2019 and caused the Trump administration to authorize a $12 billion aid package to help farmers affected by the dispute.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative declined to comment on the matter.

The Trump administration is withholding appointments to the WTO's appellate body to protest what it says are abuses by the dispute-settlement authority. The seven-member panel has been reduced to three, which is the minimum number required to hear an appeal. The panel won't have sufficient members to consider new rulings after Dec. 10.

The WTO is one of several fronts in Trump's assault on a global trading system he argues is tilted against American interests. His administration is locked in negotiations with Beijing aimed at extracting concessions to reduce the United States' massive trade deficit with China. He's also threatened to put tariffs on imports of cars and parts that economists warn would disrupt an international auto industry that spent decades building global supply chains.

The Geneva-based WTO is expected to issue decisions this year on two U.S. dispute cases that allege Beijing deployed $100 billion worth of illegal farm subsidies and imposed unfair import quotas that harm U.S. corn, rice and wheat producers.

Both cases are "pretty much slam dunks" for the U.S., Jennifer Hillman, a former WTO judge who now teaches trade law at Georgetown University, said in an interview.

"We really have to fix the appellate body now," she said. "Without an appellate body, you may lose the ability to collect your winnings, because there won't be a binding way to force other countries to come into compliance."

A ruling against China in either case could force Beijing to reform its agricultural policies — something that could help make America's farmers become more competitive.

"If we win those cases, we would expect China to appeal," said Floyd Gaibler, the director of trade policy for the Washington-based U.S. Grains Council. That would leave the status of those claims uncertain and "we are very concerned about this," he said.

In 2017, China imported a total $24.2 billion in American agricultural products. Combined purchases slumped by a third to about $16 billion last year as China's retaliatory tariffs on American farm goods reduced imports.

"Trump's message to the farmers is to be patient and be patriotic — but they are getting very concerned and anxious that they are not seeing an end to this," Hillman said.

Farm-state lawmakers such as Rep. Kevin Brady from Texas are urging the Trump administration to fix the WTO's dispute-settlement problems rather than precipitate its paralysis.

"We want that appellate body dispute-resolution approach, we want that to work," Brady said during a recent speech in Washington. "And we need to make reforms to do that."

FRANCIS GARDLER, Journal Star file photo 

Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander looks on during warmups prior to the Michigan State game Nov. 17 at Memorial Stadium.

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Statewide half-cent sales tax increase 'is on the table'

The Legislature's Revenue Committee on Monday eyed a half-cent hike in Nebraska's sales tax rate as it launched an effort to reach agreement on a plan to raise sufficient funding to reduce property taxes.

"A one half-cent sales tax increase is on the table," Revenue Chairwoman Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said following a wide-ranging committee conversation about issues attached to proposed tax reform.

The committee began to fashion its tax reform plan at an evening meeting in the Capitol cafeteria at tables pulled up in front of candy and snack machines.

No votes were taken and no bills were amended, but committee members generally agreed that they would raise additional revenue only for the purpose of property tax relief, not to increase state spending beyond the 3 percent boost contained in Gov. Pete Ricketts' budget recommendations.

"We are going to look at all possibilities," Linehan said following the surprisingly united discussion. 

"We want to make sure we are fair to everybody," she said.

Although no votes were taken and no amendments adopted to a bundle of competing tax reform bills that are sitting in the committee following a series of public hearings, Linehan said her impression following the sitdown discussion was that "we're mostly in agreement."

Nebraska's state sales tax rate currently is 5.5 percent.

Among revenue options also on the table for consideration were sales taxes on soda pop and candy, along with some discussion about an increase in the state cigarette tax.

"We will look at different options," Linehan said.

The committee, which is composed of four urban senators and four rural senators, agreed to meet again in executive session March 14 to continue its negotiations.

"Property taxes are too high," Linehan said, and they are endangering "the largest industry in our state," Nebraska agriculture.