Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Dial back negativity on Janesville Riverfront Amphitheater

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Greg Peck
Friday, June 13, 2014

Read The Gazette's story from last Sunday on the proposed Janesville Riverfront Amphitheater, and you'll see negative comments came swiftly and often.

Similarly, critics suggest downtown is dead, so don't disturb it.

Why so negative? We can sit here and bemoan and point to Beloit with envy and wonder why we can't progress like our smaller sister city to the south. Could that negativity, rather than more can-do spirit, be one answer?

The village of Marshall in Dane County is my hometown, but I've lived here longer—nearly half my 57 years—and embraced Janesville as “my community.” Still, the negativity is disheartening.

Can we raise reasonable, thoughtful questions and concerns while still applauding overall plans that could create southern Wisconsin's premier outdoor entertainment jewel? If not, maybe it doesn't happen. Maybe Janesville stays in its past, still thinking it's a decaying industrial town while hoping that someday General Motors will return and heal all our ailments.

Think again.

The Forward Foundation, the charitable arm of Forward Janesville, is raising money to build this amphitheater, which the adjacent Janesville Performing Arts Center will run. Here are answers to questions—most stemming from criticisms I've heard and read—I posed to JPAC Executive Director Elizabeth Horvath (by email) and Forward Janesville President John Beckord (by phone) in recent days:

Q: Will people show up and embrace this venue?

A: Horvath: “With any new project, there is some degree of uncertainty on attendance levels; however, there will be several free events, in addition to ticketed events, that the public can enjoy to form a positive opinion about the venue. Feedback from current residents has shown that outdoor summer events are needed in the community and must be presented on an ongoing, easy-to-attend basis similar to events in Madison, Lake Geneva and other neighboring communities. We want to make the events at the amphitheater as accessible as possible in order to embrace it for the future.”

Q: Won't weather be a detriment?

A: Horvath: “Weather is always a concern with outdoor events; however, we anticipate that the positive customer experience while attending performances will outweigh the public's concern of weather threats. There will be emergency procedures in place, as well as communication platforms that ensure the safety of patrons in the event of severe weather or threatened weather.”

Q: Won't this compete with the new roofed stage planned at Lower Courthouse Park?

A: Horvath: “The goal for downtown Janesville is to have complementary events occurring at complementary spaces at concurrent times. Having both a smaller space at courthouse park in addition to the new larger outdoor amphitheater will open opportunities for these complementary events. Having multiple-sized spaces also provides a greater opportunity for more downtown festivals with concurring performances, speakers and open-to-the-public events.”

Q: The $4.8 million fundraising plan includes $531,000 for a JPAC freight elevator and dock. Why is that so important?

A: Horvath: “JPAC does not have a way of loading in large items to the existing theater, prohibiting some high-quality productions. In addition, much of the technical equipment needed for the amphitheater will have to be stored inside during the winter for maintenance purposes. Since we are in a historic building with small doorway entries, the loading area and elevator are necessary to improve the overall operations of both the outdoor amphitheater and inside historic theater.”

Q: How confident are organizers that they can raise that much money?

A: Beckord: “We're very optimistic. It's a big challenge, obviously, but we're optimistic that if we're able to present the idea and are fortunate enough to have some early adopters who will invest in it, we think we can get some momentum built and surprise a lot of people with how successful we can be. That is our goal. We have a lot of work to do. By the end of the summer, we'll have a better sense of what kind of progress we're making. My calendar is getting littered with presentations to potential funders.”

Q: Why is Forward Janesville, this community's chamber of commerce, behind this?

A: “There is a business angle to this, and that is the trends for the demographics in Wisconsin are pretty clear. We're going to get older. Out of 800,000-plus new residents of Wisconsin projected over the next 30 years, only about 15,000 will be of working-age population,” he said. “Communities that can attract young people and families are the ones that are going to have the labor force required to prosper. Retirement communities inherently will have a lot of challenges—lower sales tax revenues, lower housing prices—and will find it difficult to get a referendum passed. Companies can't grow here if they can't recruit the talent they need.”

Q: Can we do what Beloit has done?

A: Beckord: I greatly respect what Beloit has been able to do, and it has been a true public-private partnership. The people who just assume that everything accomplished there has been accomplished by a few very wealthy families are wrong. Citizens and taxpayers have invested a lot of money in making that downtown flourish. Similarly, private entities have stepped up and invested money to move that community forward. That has been a 25-year effort, and we can do this. There are still a lot of people in Janesville who harbor a great deal of pride in this community and are determined to make downtown Janesville into a place that citizens here can be proud of.”

Let's rally in support of this project. Read more about why this is a good idea in The Gazette's editorial Sunday.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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