Merlin Zitzner

Merlin Zitzner addresses the Baraboo City Council after receiving the Gem Award on Tuesday evening.

Business leader Merlin Zitzner has won the inaugural Baraboo Gem Award.

The longtime Baraboo National Bank executive and Sauk County Development Corporation founder received the award from Mayor Mike Palm during Tuesday’s meeting of the Baraboo City Council.

“We’re a gem of a city because of some of the people we have here,” Palm said before presenting Zitzner with a plaque.

Palm established the award program to recognize citizens who have had a profound positive effect on the community. On Tuesday, he read a proclamation honoring Zitzner’s contributions to the Sauk County Development Corporation, which Zitzner founded and served for 35 years; the Circus World Museum Foundation, which he and wife Jenele served as co-chairs of the Circus of Chefs Gala; Baraboo Country Club, whose expansion to 18 holes he spearheaded; and Baraboo National, where he has served as CEO since 1975.

While he’s best known for his business accomplishments, Zitzner said education is the key to a thriving community. Baraboo needs a strong school system that creates future leaders who will return to the community after college. “We felt that if we didn’t have a brain drain, the area would be a better place,” Zitzner said. “The area turns into a mecca, attracting people back.”

Availability of good jobs also is critical, he said, as well-compensated workers build the local economy. “Those jobs translate into good health care, recreation,” Zitzner said.

Palm plans to hand out Gem Awards monthly. Because a meeting cancellation delayed Zitzner receiving the honor, Palm plans to honor another winner at the next council meeting Feb. 24.

The award is named for Baraboo’s long-standing nickname. City Administrator Ed Geick’s research revealed Baraboo was dubbed the “gem city” as early 1907. A state horticultural report states that people bringing their livestock to the Sauk County Courthouse square to conduct business had left the grounds barren. The County Board refused to earmark funds to beautify the property, so volunteers undertook a campaign to plant trees and flowers. This prompted observers to declare Baraboo the “gem city” of the state.

Other sources say the nickname comes from the city’s setting, as Baraboo is nestled among the surrounding bluffs like a gemstone. Several local businesses have adopted the nickname, from the 19th century to present.

Gem Award nominations can be made via the city website at According to the nomination form, “individuals need to have demonstrated long term dedication to making our city a more positive and prosperous place to live. Candidates must have contributed to the economic well being as well as the attractiveness of our community.”